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As housing slumps, realtors quit

Many revert to former careers or, like Dee McMahon, look for new ones.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2008

A realtor no more: Dee McMahon of Atlanta gave it up in November.

Patrik Jonsson

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After three years showing houses in Atlanta's hilly suburbs, Dee McMahon is finished with real estate.

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Yanking up her custom-made "For Sale" signs in her North Lake neighborhood rattled her ego, she admits. But when Ms. McMahon closed her final sale, a house in Snellville, Ga., in late November, the mother of two felt a swell of relief.

"Now I can finally get my own house back together," she says. "I'm nervous about the future, but I feel happy."

McMahon is one of thousands of real estate agents across the US wandering with mixed emotions and uncertain prospects through the debris of a real estate gold rush.

As many train for new careers, return to old ones, or wait tables until prices rebound, the plight of the real estate agent – average age, 51 – reveals the human dimension of how loose lending, raw opportunity, and self-determination produced a housing bust that has stunned the US economy.

"They've tasted success and big money, and now their standard of living has been rocked and reality has set in," says John Baen, a real estate professor at the University of North Texas in Denton. "The whole [economy] has been built on real estate. When the music stops, what is left?"

Americans are still drawn to working in real estate, according to the National Association of Realtors, which says its membership rose this year to 1.35 million. That growth in the ranks may be attributed to unaffiliated agents scrambling for clout in a tough market rather than an indication that the total number of agents is rising, the NAR acknowledges.

Evidence is growing that agents, especially in hard-hit markets like Florida, California, and Georgia, are closing up shop in large numbers, experts say.

Here in Atlanta, the number of agents letting their licenses lapse is growing at a faster pace than the number of overall licenses held. Nationally, an average agent's income dropped from $49,300 to $47,900 between 2004 and 2006. Not helping that trend is the cold fact that, according to Standard & Poor's house price index, home prices dropped precipitously in 2007, breaking the record 6.1 percent annual decline in 1991.

In Cape Coral, Fla., where only 30 percent of agents sold even a single home last year, real estate agents are "dropping out" daily, says local realtor Ginette Young. The Oregon Association of Realtors reports an 11.5 percent decline statewide of licensed agents in the past year.

Many of those who leave quietly shelve their signs. Others go out big: In Gilbert, Ariz., the fastest-growing city in the fastest-growing state, RE/MAX 2000 closed 13 offices throughout the Valley of the Sun, laying off at least 20 employees and scores of contract agents right before Christmas. The company couldn't meet its expenses.