Realtors become fewer in Md. Growing complexity of job, technology, start-up cost blamed

September 13, 1998|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

Their numbers are dwindling.

As the 46th annual Maryland Association of Realtors Conference returns this week to Ocean City -- after two years in Atlantic City, N.J. -- Realtors may be noticing that their association is becoming a leaner outfit.

According to MAR statistics, membership has dropped significantly, from about 29,000 at the beginning of the decade to less than 17,000, a drop of approximately 40 percent.

That drop mirrors the overall decline in state licensees in the real estate field.

The number of licensed agents and brokers in the state has swooned from a high of 59,150 on April 30, 1990, to 29,994 just eight years later, according to Elizabeth Beggs, executive director of the Maryland Real Estate Commission.

"I always bring this topic up when I'm talking to people who have come in to interview with me, who are thinking about becoming a Realtor or who have maybe already signed up for the licensing class," said William F. Cassidy, manager of the Fells Point office for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. "And I point out to them that we are a dwindling population, and their reaction is usually, 'Why?' And my answer is usually one word: 'technology.' "

But the answer is more than just technology. Other words used to explain the decline include: recession, cost, education, complexity.

"1990 was the first year that we started going south, and we have gone that way ever since," said John Evans, outgoing president of the MAR and a principal at O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA. "Now, we are hoping that it might change next year. But the national association and the Maryland association and ,, other associations are budgeting on it not going back into the plus channel in 1999."

Membership levels, according to the National Association of Realtors, had been more than 800,000 in the late 1980s, only to drop to 700,000 last year. But according to Jeff Lubar, spokesman for the NAR, membership this year has rebounded to approximately 720,000.

With dwindling memberships comes dwindling revenue. And has the impact been felt?

"Of course it has. Unquestionably it has," said Mary Antoun, executive vice president of the MAR. "Like most professional organizations, we are largely dues dependent, so of course it has had an effect on us. But like most professional, nonprofit organizations, we have for a long time looked to other sources for revenue.

"But we've made changes on how we want to put our emphasis. Five years ago we had more members, but we also had a black-and-white newsletter. Now we have fewer members, and we do a [full-color] magazine."

Evans pointed to the recessions of the early 1990s as a period that shook out many of the Realtors who had come into the business during the last real estate boom in the late 1980s.

"A lot of people who had just started in the business and who needed the income couldn't make it, so they weren't able to stay," Evans said.

"And some of those people who were not top performers that were more part time in the industry may have left. That is what we have seen."

Although the MAR does not keep statistics on the number of part-time sales people, the National Association of Realtors in a 1996 survey -- its most recent -- reported that 27 percent worked part time. That is 12 percentage points less than a high of 39 percent in its 1984 survey.

"Typically, when we have a run of good times we will see people coming in," Evans added. "When you have tough times, unfortunately some people who can be very, very good, cannot afford to stay with it because it takes too long to get going."

Evans also pointed to the change made two years ago by the Real Estate Commission that doubled the number of in-class hours -- from 45 to 90 -- that were required before taking the licensing exam. However, in the last General Assembly session, the requirement was trimmed to 60 hours, beginning Oct. 1.

That change, Evans says, cut down the flow of agents to the field. According to statistics released by the Real Estate Commission, the number of agent applicants who sat for the exam in 1996, when the 45-hour requirement was in effect, was 9,278 -- a number inflated by the impending higher classroom requirement.

In 1997, under the 90-hour requirement, the number of applicants dropped to 4,744. In 1998, it rose to 5,452.

The learning curve of the ever-increasing amount of technology that supports the real estate business also has had its effect on membership. Older Realtors, frustrated with the newer levels of expertise required to run software, are waving the white flag and leaving the business.

"I started 22 years ago, and 22 years ago all of this technology didn't exist," Cassidy said.

"Now 20 years later, [for] some of us old-timers, it has been a turn-off. We didn't count on this when we started our real estate careers. We expected it to be much more dependent on our social contact, and now it has swung to how we market ourselves on the Internet.

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