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How rookie agents are faring during the pandemic

Lack of hands-on experience and unprecedented market conditions pose biggest challenges to new agents

When the restaurant Tom Hunt worked at as a server temporarily shut down during the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided it was the right time to pursue his longtime desire of becoming a real estate agent.

“I’ve always been interested in real estate, but I’ve always had other obligations and I didn’t feel confident that my commissions, at least in the beginning, would be enough to support my family,” the Eureka, California-based agent said. “When COVID happened I decided to get to work on my license.”

Hunt was set to take his licensing exam in October 2020 only to have California go back into lockdown, forcing him to wait until March 2021 to finally take it.

“When they said they were starting exams again, I hopped on it and managed to book a slot for two weeks after they opened up,” Hunt said. “I had let things slip so I crammed it all in again and took a ton of practice tests and then took the real thing.”

The cramming paid off and Hunt officially became a licensed real estate agent in March 2021, joining the Eureka-based brokerage, California Real Estate.

Hunt is just one among thousands of agents who has ventured into the field of real estate during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the close of 2019, the National Association of Realtors had 1.4 million members. By the end of 2020 the organization’s membership had soared to 1.48 million, according to the NAR’s 2021 member profile report.

Reality television programs portray the real estate agent as a glamorous and easily profitable career. But it rarely reflects the reality, especially for greenhorn agents. These rookies were thrust into the most extreme seller’s markets in history, where they had to learn on the fly how to write an offer, pitch a potential seller, and generate leads. The pandemic forced many to take online classes, limited in-person interaction with clients and deprived them of the opportunity to observe their mentors and brokers in action.

For thousands of new agents, the fresh start – even with all its warts – has been worth it.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people who had been putting off becoming an agent, for various reasons, found it easier to make time for education courses, especially since they did not have to physically go there,” Suzanne Hollander, a professor of real estate at Florida International University, said. “Then the second thing is with the prices of the market so high, there is this idea that you can be really successful in real estate. It can be really aspirational.”

As the pandemic took off in Lexington, Kentucky, new Century 21 agent Luis Paredes suddenly found himself spending a lot of time at home. In early 2020, a friend knew the Amazon employee with a degree in audio engineering was interested in making a career change, so he put Paredes in touch with Brent Simpson, a local real estate broker.

“My schedule was just jam-packed with 60 hours a week and I felt kind of trapped,” Parades explained. “I had been there for about two years and I was like, ‘Man there really isn’t anything else I can do here.’”

Paredes said his conversation with Simpson really opened his eyes to the possibility of a career in real estate, but he was struggling to find the time to invest in taking the necessary classes. That all changed when the pandemic hit.

“I devoted at least two hours a day to the classes, and it took me about three months to finish my schooling and then I spent another month practicing for the state and federal exams,” Parades explained.

Online training doesn’t always work

Although Paredes liked the flexibility of online classes and felt that they prepared him well for his licensing exams, other agents, like Augusta, Georgia-based eXp Realty agent Stacy Pulliam, struggled with learning online.

“Everyone is different and for me online classes just didn’t work,” Pulliam said. “I have two kids at home and I was still running my own small business when I started the classes. They give you six months to complete the classes and, in my opinion, that is too long because I put it off right until the end and didn’t really absorb the material well, so I ended up taking the classes again.”

Despite the initial hiccup, Pulliam is glad she made the jump. She had previously worked in customer service for a phone company while going to cosmetology school and eventually opened her own salon.

“I have always been in customer service and real estate is a service industry,” Pulliam said. “Buying a house is not just another transaction, the relationship with the client is so important. When you cut someone’s hair there is a certain level of trust you have to build and with real estate, if your client wants to sell their home or successfully purchase one, they need to feel like they can trust you and your expertise. That is a skill I think has really carried over well.”

Sales experience helps

Jenny Vergos, Memphis, Tennessee-based agent for Marx-Bensdorf, also said that the knowledge and skills she gained in her previous career selling billboard advertising space, or “real estate on a stick,” as she termed it, has helped her tremendously as she started her new career in residential real estate.

“A lot of it is networking and not being afraid to approach people,” Vergos said. “For me, a lot of that has just come from being in sales and being good at sales and being able to take rejection. I’m not in your face about things, but I let it be known that I want to help you and I want to work with you.”

While Hollander acknowledges that strong sales instincts and a passion for real estate are helpful when starting out in the field, there are a lot of things new agents need to take into account before taking the plunge.

“When you’re starting as a real estate agent you have to get to know your market, your buyers and sellers and you have to get to know the process to actually close a transaction,” Hollander said. “So it does take some startup time and in most situations, you don’t get paid unless the deal closes.”

Hot markets can be challenging for newbies

Although demand for houses and subsequently the services of a real estate agent remain high, many of the agents that spoke to RealTrends said that these hot market conditions are one of the largest challenges they have faced.

“We’ve got a really limited supply right now and you’ve got a lot of people looking for more or less the same price point of house,” Vergos said. “There was a house last week that was on the market for less than 48 hours and had eight offers. My clients went in $10,000 over asking and they probably were not even in the top three. I had several clients [where] it took seven or eight offers before they finally won.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, new agents could attempt to build their business by “sitting” other agents’ open houses or by farming an area through door knocking.

“A lot of strategies my mentor used when starting out decades ago, either are no longer available or out of date,” Los Angeles-based eXp Realty agent Ray McIntosh said. “Then with all the other restrictions I couldn’t even go with my mentor to appointments. I couldn’t watch him pitch to a potential seller, so I think a lot of us missed out on stuff like that.”

Using social media to get business

Back in Lexington, Paredes, who dabbled in social media product promotion before starting his career in real estate, is using the social media content creation skills he cultivated to help drum up business, a strategy many agents have turned to for lead generation.

“Every week, I drop a video on Facebook and Instagram and maybe a few other posts,” Paredes said. “I have gotten a few clients and referrals through Facebook, so I think it is working.”

Despite his success, Paredes still does not feel 100% comfortable with all aspects of a real estate transaction. Up on the Northern Californian Coast, Tom Hunt expressed a similar sentiment.

“Real estate is a lot more than just selling properties,” Hunt said. “There are so many different facets to the purchase of a home and no two transactions are alike and it can be intimidating because without the hands-on experience you don’t really know the process that well, which can make it hard to even know what questions you want to ask. I’m feeling a lot more comfortable now, but I think I’ve realized that even years from now I’ll probably still run into things that make me uncomfortable.”

The struggle is real

According to the 2021 NAR Member Profile, it is not uncommon for new agents to struggle with building a business. Of the members surveyed, 59% of Realtors with two or less years of experience made less than $10,000, compared to the 39% of members with more than 16 years of experience who made more than $100,000.

For this reason, Hunt chose to stay on at his job at the restaurant which reopened once California’s regulations on indoor dining eased.

“I picked a brokerage that kind of lets me do what I want in terms of the number of hours I work each week, plus they have been a great resource for me as I have started out,” Hunt explained.

Less than a year has passed since Hunt has started his career as a licensed real estate agent and his initial trepidations about not being able to support his family on commissions alone is gone. In fact, he says that he is ready to make real estate his full-time career, but the nationwide service industry labor shortage had other plans.

“They need me at the restaurant,” he explained. “They just can’t find anyone else.”

But while this keeps him from working as a full-time agent, he says it has its perks, namely a chance to market his services as a real estate agent.

“I wear a Realtor-branded mask in the restaurant and my business cards are up front and pens with my branding are with the checks,” he said. “It’s hard having two jobs but having the chance to market myself to people in the community is huge. But overall, I am really happy I finally took the leap and became an agent.”