Washboard Abs Versus Working Day And Night: What TV Does Not Tell Us About Real Estate Agents’ Work

Real Estate

Cooking and real estate have some qualities in common. Sam Sifton, the New York Times food writer, engages so many readers, cooks and non-cooks alike, both because he personalizes his columns and he engages with the totality of cooking: the craft, the emotional benefits, and the social significance of sitting down together to eat delicious home-prepared food. As I read these columns (every day, if I can) I am struck by the similarity between what he does and what real estate agents do. Brokers, too, need deep skills, a strong emotional IQ, and social adroitness in order to navigate the pitfall-laden terrain incumbent on either selling or buying a home.

Last year, Coldwell Banker introduced an ad campaign that played up these exact issues. While I had no association with the brand at that time (Coldwell Banker has since purchased my firm, Warburg Realty), I reacted with appreciation to the campaign, which emphasized an underacknowledged fact –successful real estate agents are highly skilled professionals for whom the attainment of a top position in the field takes years of learning, stumbling, falling down, and getting up again. Real estate brokerage is a craft, which needs to be mastered through years of training and skills development.

Real estate brokerage reality TV may have supplied the public with endless hours of entertainment, but it bears no relationship to reality. If only washboard abs, hair gel, and European cut suits were enough to guarantee $100,000 commission checks delivered after a few phone calls and an argument or two! Unfortunately, that is precisely what many agents entering the business today believe. The reality provides a rude awakening. Brokerage requires hard work: learning the inventory, learning the law, developing negotiating skills, sensing the pitfalls which await each deal, and managing the expectations of anxious principals. Not to mention an in-depth understanding of financial statements, mortgage suitability and availability, credit history – the list goes on. For most agents, it takes a minimum of five years to get the business “into the fingertips,” familiar enough so you have reliable instincts about how to solve problems, reassure buyers and sellers, and skillfully keep a deal moving along without turning into that “pushy broker” who has become a negative (and frequently sexist) stereotype.

As with most highly skilled professions, the success rate for residential real estate practitioners is low. The vast majority of newly licensed agents fall by the wayside within a few years (in 2014, the National Association of Realtors published statistics that 87% of agents would leave the business within five years of entering it.) For most, the road to success turns out to be longer and more twisted than they expected. Here are a few things many new agents don’t expect:

  • Real Estate Brokerage Is Not A Part Time Job. In fact, you make your own hours. Which, for most top agents, translates into some form of 24/7/365!
  • You Need Money Set Aside. Almost no one in our business makes enough money to live on right away. In the residential business, you only earn if you close. There’s no draw and no salary.
  • You Have To Work Day And Night To Feed Your Client Pipeline: Of all the skills you need to master as an agent, this is perhaps the most important. All the skills an agent works to master only come into play with sellers and buyers on whom to practice them. Each agent needs to work differently, in accordance with their individual traits and areas of comfort. But pipeline failure remains the single most significant reason for the high agent failure and dropout rates.

Residential real estate resembles many other careers in that, to put it in Biblical terms, many are called but few are chosen. And the chosen ones get to the top for a reason. They put in years of hard work, study and analysis of their successes and failures, and a commitment to using every experience as an opportunity for improvement. A good haircut and shiny white teeth may make the agents on TV’s reality shows look great and seem successful, but that’s TV. It’s not reality.

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