The defining moment in my still-fledgling career as a real estate agent came at our office holiday party in December, when superstar agent Phyllis Alexander gave me some of the best advice I have ever received.
I had been telling her how surprised I was by my volume of sales and how exhausted I was working seven days a week for 12 to 16 hours a day. Fixing her blue eyes on me, she said: "Hire a full-time assistant."
An assistant had occurred to me, but what a responsibility, what an expense.
No, no, no, no, no, Alexander explained. An assistant functioning as a buyers' representative would free me to bring in more business.
"The assistant will pay for himself," she said.
As I wrote in this section last May, I learned in my first year in real estate that selling houses successfully had less to do with charm, for example, than with building a business. Investing the necessary time and money to lay a foundation for the business, then running it, was the hard part.
That has remained true in my second year in the industry. It has meant buying and mastering new technologies, creating systems that result in efficiencies, and acquiring the edge in education and experience that helps me compete with the thousands of other agents in this market.
How competitive is it? The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, which represents the District and suburban Maryland, has more than 7,000 members. Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. alone has more than 12,000 agents. The National Association of Realtors recently signed up its millionth member, though not all agents are members.
I received my license in July 2002 and began devoting myself full time to real estate in late fall as I gradually left my "real" job and interviewed with various brokerages. Size, culture, location and treatment of new agents all mattered. The office I picked and its sales manager, Marj Rosner, turned out to be the perfect match for me.
Still, at the end of 2002, I had only one sale -- and that one was shared with a generous agent who was mentoring me. Such a slow start is typical.
"It is not unusual for smart new agents to start a bit slowly," said Rosner. "There is a tough balance between wanting to learn everything before they venture out with clients and waiting so long to venture out that they go broke. A certain amount of risk-taking is necessary. That's hard for people who come to the real estate industry after having been extremely competent at something else."
With her advice, training and support, my business began growing beyond my most optimistic projections. In the first half of 2003, I had six sales worth a little more than $1.5 million. By the end of the year, the total was 24 transactions worth more than $6 million.
Yet if I divide a conservative estimate of the hours I worked into my commission income minus expenses, my earnings come to a little more than $3 an hour. Even if I halve the number of hours worked, it was still around the minimum wage. It was not until September 2003 that the column of red on my Quicken balance sheet flowed into black.