Joey McNair is a victim of the new economy. He was laid off from his telecommunications job in Dallas, then hired by Lucent Technologies Inc. for a job in Washington.
Then, on the day he moved here from Texas, he was laid off again.
After a rough transition, McNair, 30, decided to become a real estate agent. In the first six months he made no money, but he built his business and was named "rookie of the year" last year for the Georgetown office of Begg-Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., which has about 85 agents.
"I'm never going back to the telecom industry," McNair said. "I've found what I like for now."
More people are turning to real estate as a career. Many of them, like McNair, are the victims of telecom and tech layoffs. They have been lured to real estate by the healthy housing market and by the relative ease of getting into the business. These new agents are slowly -- and perhaps temporarily -- changing the profile of their profession.
"It's a combination of the economy and the problems in the tech industry," said Greg J. Milward, chief executive of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. Milward said his organization's membership has increased 10 percent this year. "And there's been a whole change in the people getting into the business."
Elaine Campbell-Mercer, a recruiter for Begg-Long & Foster, said: "We're definitely seeing an influx of young people. Over half my candidates are people in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. They're technologically savvy and not afraid of commission-based income. They get through the learning curve a lot quicker."
The number of people taking the real estate licensing exam in Maryland, Virginia and the District has spiked in the past year.
In Virginia, where the tech industry took its hardest hit, the number of people taking the licensing exam is up sharply. According to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, 6,953 people took the real estate sales license exam in 2001; so far this year, 9,766 people have taken the test, a 40 percent increase.
In the District, 1,035 people took the licensing exam last year; in the first 10 months of this year, 1,317 people took it, according to the D.C. Board of Real Estate.
In Maryland, in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2001, the state Real Estate Commission said 11,413 people took the exam. In the first four months of this fiscal year, 4,292 people took it.
Milward said fewer people are leaving the business, too. "We would usually cycle through about a third of our members every year," he said. "We're not seeing the attrition we normally see. The percentage of people renewing is going up."
It is no surprise that the strong market is attracting people to the industry. That is what happened in previous market cycles, according to figures from the National Association of Realtors.
The number of agents nationwide hit a recent low in 1997 at 696,000, right before the market began to pick up. It has been steadily climbing since and this year is 840,000. The association's membership has increased 80,000 in the past two years.
A lot more of the agents coming into the business now are primary wage-earners, rather than the traditional secondary wage-earners, said Pat G. Kaplan, treasurer of the National Association of Realtors and a broker in Portland, Ore.
Arun Singh, who just finished the prep course for his real estate exam at the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, plans to take the exam soon.
Singh, 39, has been laid off from two Northern Virginia tech companies in the past 18 months. Although he has a new job lined up for December, he is taking the exam "to keep his options open . . . not take any chances."
Real estate is an attractive option because it is relatively cheap and easy to get an agent's license. A state-mandated course to prepare for the licensing exam generally runs about two weeks and costs about $300. The test costs about $65.
"The barriers to entry in this field are not very high," said Guyon E. Moseley II, whose Moseley Institute in Manassas offers state-approved real estate courses for $280 to $330, depending on whether students attend classes or take the course online or by correspondence. "Then you need a cell phone and a laptop and you can get started."
Getting into the field may be easy, but succeeding is not, experts said. They predicted that many of the new agents will not make it.
"A lot of these people see real estate as a panacea to all their problems right now," said William Hardin, who teaches real estate classes at the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. " 'I'm going to make a million,' they say to themselves. But then when they see the time and effort involved, they give up. Most of them don't stick."
A third of the people who get into the real estate business drop out, Kaplan said. Upfront costs can be high: In 2000, the typical agent spent $6,600, about 14 percent of gross income, on business-related expenses. And money can come in slowly until a network of clients is established. It takes time to build up a referral business.
The median income of an agent in 2000 was $47,700, an increase of nearly 10 percent, compared with 1998.
Plenty of agents make money, however. The number of people making $100,000 or more jumped 10 percent in the five years from 1996 to 2001. In 2001, 23 percent of the national association's 750,000 agent members made more than $100,000 a year, the group says.
Even though many agents say the home-sales market is slowing, the number of people interested in the business continues to climb.
"We originally thought this would be a short-term surge in our intake," said Anne Gardner, director of member services at the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. "We first started seeing this surge in the early spring. But it's sustaining itself and actually increasing. It's been something to marvel at."
Gardner said the association is accepting 100 to 150 new members a month.
The influx of new people may not be a blessing.
"I'm worried about all these new agents," McNair said. "The market has changed a lot in the last six months. It's going to be tough for everyone to survive."
McNair is typical of the new real estate agent. On his second career but still just 30, he believes in the power of Internet marketing. He credits a listings newsletter that he e-mails every two weeks for much of his success. His e-mail address, Web site and phone number all include the letters "J-O-E-Y."
"I believe in branding, in marketing," he said.
Not all the new agents are tech refugees. People for whom English is a second language are also pushing the number of agents, training experts said. They often cater to the growing market of immigrant buyers.
Sami Lauri, a Korean immigrant, is one of those new agents. She said much of her clientele is from the Asia and the Middle East, including India, South Korea, Iraq, Iran and China. "I even have a client from Tibet at the moment," she said.
"Immigrants have a high desire to own, more than people who grew up here," said Lauri, who works in Northern Virginia. "After about three to five years that they're here, they've saved money for a deposit to buy their first home. And then they want to buy."
Real estate drew Lauri because of its flexibility and entrepreneurial possibilities.
"It's a very attractive career from the standpoint of being able to control your own destiny," Moseley said. "It gives you a flexibility you don't normally have in a 9-5 job."
Lauri was a private cello teacher before she became an agent. The No. 1 job agents had before turning to real estate was teaching, according to the realty association.
The group's 2001 member profile, based on a survey of about 7,000 members, gives other insights into who they are. (Not all real estate agents or brokers are members of the association, but most are.) Among the respondents:
* 56 percent were women. Men, however, typically earn more money.
* The median age was 52 years. (The proportion of agents at least 55 years old has increased over the last 20 years, while there has been a sharp decline in the number of sales agents younger than 35 years old.)
* 92 percent were white, 2 percent were black, 2 percent Asian and 5 percent of Hispanic background.
* The median gross household income rose to $92,800 in 2000, an increase of 11 percent from two years earlier. The median gross U.S. household income in 1999 was $40,816.
* Nearly 2 in 5 owned a home other than their primary residence for investment purposes.
* 88 percent had a least some college education; those with bachelor's degrees had incomes 30 percent higher than those without.
* Just 7 percent reported that real estate is their first career, while 93 percent said it is their second career or even later.
* 79 percent said their primary business is residential brokerage. (Many practice other specialties in addition to residential brokerage. Land brokerage, relocation, commercial brokerage and property management were the most common.)
* Nearly 3 in 4 said they are compensated by a percentage commission split with their agency. Beginning agents usually got 60 percent; the median was 65 percent. One out of every five took 100 percent of the sales commission. The most successful agents get the biggest percentages.