After the bubble bursts

Published May 28, 2007

TAMPA - Marc Stern was a commercial airline pilot for 29 years. In 2005, the year homes sold in a day and buyers lined up at the door, Stern did what lots of career professionals did: He ditched his occupation to sell real estate.

He set up shop in the manicured suburbs of New Tampa. In similar communities across the bay area, real estate agents were making a lot of money, and those who had toyed with career changes took the plunge.

As a result, agents popped up almost as quickly as homes were selling. Now, they're dying under the collapse of the real estate bubble. Some who left their longtime professions are either going back to their old lives or finding different ways to stand apart from the rest of the crowded realty field.

"We're dealing with higher-end properties, so we may be able to weather the storm, " said Stern, who works for Florida Executive Realty, but still pilots on occasion. "But I may have to pick up some more flying shifts."

Today, competition for buyers is fierce. The Greater Tampa Association of Realtors does not track previous careers, but said its membership doubled during the real estate boom.

In five years beginning in 2002, it jumped from about 4, 500 members to about 9, 500 real estate agents, said the group's president, Carlos Fuentes. So far this year, the number has remained steady, even with the market shift, although its leaders braced for about a 10 percent drop in membership this year, he said.

"Houses are on the market for more days, and the inventory is growing, " Fuentes said. "I imagine many of our members who have other careers will go back to them and sell real estate part time."

A career change

Real estate is the first career for just 4 percent of the nation's Realtors, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Stern, who never fully left the airline business "because pilots like to have a backup, " is glad he didn't walk away. He had sold real estate for 10 years, in addition to flying, before making it his full-time job during the boom.

"We're making less money now, " he said. "We hope and pray that the market turns by next year. Obviously, having a another career as a backup is always good."

According to the National Association of Realtors, the median income of Realtors last year was $47, 700, down from $49, 300 in 2004. And Realtors with two years or experience or less earned a median of $15, 300.

Lori Hakeem, 33, of New Tampa is among the group of second-career real estate agents. She spent 16 years in banking, starting out as a teller at age 17. As a branch manager for SunTrust Bank, she witnessed the housing market flourish. She quietly took real estate classes on nights and weekends. In early 2005, she quit her bank job.

"I shocked everybody, " she said. "I always thought (being a real estate agent) would be a fun job, and it was just something I always wanted to do."

The market began its descent around the time she got her license. Today, whenever she gets a listing or helps a buyer find a home, it is a milestone moment. Hakeem is sticking it out because she enjoys the customer service aspect of the job.

To rise above the rest, she offers free home staging for sellers, decorating empty homes to make them more appealing. She even has her own Web site (http://yourcastleyourhome.com) where she showcases the rooms she has filled with plants and candles and fruit baskets. Instead of lugging in beds, she uses air mattresses that she covers in lush bedding.

Hakeem said she doesn't make quite as much as she did in banking, though she declines to be specific, and the hours are rough. She often is up until 1 a.m. researching properties.

"I miss the customers in banking, occasionally, I do, " Hakeem said. "But this to me is a lot more exciting. I love what I do."

Hakeem has used her old profession to her advantage: "The biggest way of doing business is referrals. A lot of time it comes from my clients at the bank, where they know how I perform my job."

No new business

Jack Soifer, a 51-year-old real estate agent from Seminole, used to own an RV dealership in Pinellas County. He became a real estate agent in 2004. While he learned the ropes, he witnessed his colleagues raking in the money. Investors were their biggest clients.

Some Realtors he knows are making $400, 000 this year, but that's because they're finally closing on preconstruction sales that they made two to three years ago, he said.

"Investors have left the marketplace, and real estate agents aren't getting any new business" he said. "People think we're making all this money, and we're not."

Participation in the local MLS board, an online real estate portal, has taken a dive, Soifer said. In order to be a successful real estate agent, you need to be a psychologist and a savvy business person, he said.

"It's much more difficult than one thinks, " said Soifer, who puts in about 55 hours a week. "But I have no regrets."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5312.

Lori Hakeem

Age: 33

Company: Keller Williams Realty, New Tampa

Was: a bank branch manager

Became a Realtor: 2005

"My life is a lot different. Many times, people want to look at properties as a last-minute thing. I've just learned to be more flexible with my time."

Marc Stern

Age: 53

Company: Florida Executive Realty, New Tampa

Was: a commercial airline pilot

Became a Realtor: devoted full time in 2005

"When homes sold in a day, it took three to four days to (create) a virtual tour online, but by then the home would be sold. It wasn't worth it. Now, we have to get back to the basic bones of what it takes to be a Realtor."

Jack Soifer

Age: 51

Company: Beach & Bay Realty, Indian Shores

Was: owner of an RV dealership

Became a Realtor: 2004

"2006 wasn't that great, but it takes time. I'm willing to stick to it. I go to a lot of open houses. When I'm doing the condo complexes, I meet the neighbors to learn the market a little bit better so I can become more of an expert."