Why the D.C. area financial sector is seeing its best job growth in a decade


Ellen Abrams, a real estate agent with Evers & Co., shows a house in Chevy Chase, Md. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For the Washington Post)
September 15, 2013

When the recession took a major bite of out her real estate title business in 2009, Girale Wilson-Takahashi was forced to shutter her company and look for a job in another industry. She soon found work at the Commerce Department, but she kept a close eye on the local housing market. And gradually she began to notice some changes: Inventory was relatively low. Home prices were inching up.

Finally, this spring, she made a decision.

“I think I’ve waited long enough, I think it’s time for me to get back into this,” Wilson-Takahashi said. “The market is turning.”

So she returned to real estate, but in a different role. Wilson-Takahashi got licensed in Maryland as a real estate agent and began working at Long & Foster’s College Park office.

It appears that Wilson-Takahashi is one of many local workers who see fresh opportunity in real estate. The financial activities sector in the Washington area added 7,700 jobs between July 2012 and July 2013, the largest year-over-year job growth the industry has seen in a decade.

Economists say that the gains are likely tied to the recovery of the region’s housing market: As it improves, the need for real estate agents and mortgage financiers has picked up, and these fields once again look more attractive to prospective workers.

“When you have a good market, you want to take advantage of that and grow,” said Donna Evers, founder of District-based Evers & Co. Real Estate.

Evers said that she has moved to expand her company in the past four years, going from 70 real estate agents to 110, and opening a fourth office in Bethesda.

“Bethesda is hot as a pistol. The development that’s slated to take place in Bethesda is really going to make it a peripheral city,” Evers said.

At McEnearney Associates’s McLean branch, executive vice president Jon Wolford said the job growth is not just a result of new agents coming aboard, but also because of improved business for existing agents.

“An agent who might have sold $8 million worth of real estate [in the past], this year might be selling $12 to $14 million worth of real estate,” Wolford said. “They might be looking to form a team, also looking to hire staff.”

Ebb and flow

Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said some of the job gains might be a reflection of the tides of the real estate business. Many agents get licensed and then only do real estate work on a part-time basis or as a side business. But during brighter economic times, they might ramp up their work, moving real estate from a peripheral income stream to a central component of how they earn a living.

“We lost about half the agents back during the downturn in ’08 and ’09,” Fuller said. “So many of the agents are able to move in and out of the economy because it’s just the way they work.”

The National Association of Realtors said it has seen an uptick in membership in the District, Maryland and Virginia in the past year. The District has 121 more members this August than it had in August 2012. In Virginia, there are 669 more members; in Maryland, an additional 232 members. Though many real estate professionals are members of NAR, there are some licensed agents and brokers who are not part of the association.

As the local housing market has gained strength, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors said it is offering more opportunities to get licensed. For example, the organization started an initiative in August that offers free classes to honorably discharged veterans to prepare them to take Virginia’s real estate licensing exam.

The job growth in the financial sector is likely not just coming from new positions at real estate agencies and brokerages. Some banks have added mortgage finance professionals to deal with increased demand from home buyers.

Sandy Spring Bank says it added 16 people to its mortgage division between July 2012 and July 2013, including both mortgage bankers and loan processors.

Dawn Weglein, senior vice president and director of human resources, said the financial firm added the positions so it could better handle an increased volume of clients.

Because it was difficult to find the right talent to fill the positions, Sandy Spring created an internal training program specifically for jobs in mortgage banking.

“We are very client-centric,” Weglein said. “We wanted to train folks who shared those same values.”

Fuller cautions that the job growth the sector has seen in the last year may soon plateau as mortgage rates creep up from historic lows.

And if the housing market cools off again, Kevin Poist, an agent with Evers & Co., said smart professionals will be prepared.

“Very good real estate agents always have a very good back-up plan,” Poist said.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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