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New reality in realty

For sale signs such as this one are more common around Charlotte now than only a few years ago. hspace=4
For sale signs such as this one are more common around Charlotte now than only a few years ago. hspace=4

In 2006, Charlotte's real estate market was hot. More homes were selling than ever before. For realtors, life was good. But in the past year and a half, that's changed. A once hot market has cooled significantly, and all of a sudden, what it means to be a realtor in Charlotte has changed too. 

According to the Charlotte Regional Realtors Association, 2006 was the all-time high water mark for Charlotte-area home sales. A record 44,000 houses were sold for nearly $10 billion. By then, Vicki Mitchener had co-owned Dickens-Mitchener and Associates for 15 years. 

"Most agents were doing 2-to-4 closings a month," Mitchener says. "Listings or homes for sale were going under contract in 4 to 6 weeks, it was very fast-paced."

It was so good that people were leaving other jobs to get into realty. The Charlotte Regional Realtor's Association grew to more than 9,000 members - an increase of over 40 percent in just four years. Donna Anderson is a realtor and president of the realtor's association. She says many were out to make a quick buck.

"We did have a lot of people get into the business at that time because they thought we were order takers," Anderson says. "They weren't getting in the business for the right reason. They didn't have the passion that you need to have to be in this business."

Anderson says the cool market is now weeding out many of those realtors. That's the good news. The bad news is that people are still losing their jobs. Anderson's organization predicts more than 1,800 area realtors will leave the business this year. Longtime offices are being closed or have merged. Real estate giant The Allen Tate Company announced last week it's closing a quarter of its offices. There's simply not enough business to go around.

"It stinks. It's not very good." Rick Benfield knows firsthand. He became a realtor four years ago so he could team up with his realtor wife. His best year came in 2007 when he made about $65,000. But by last summer, the well had run dry. "It all of a sudden just dropped. I mean, the phone calls stopped," says Benfield. "The referral business, which is a very big, key part of any realtor's business, stopped. So there was some concern there."

Benfield is now working for a friend's Internet-based mortgage company. And now his old boss, Vicky Mitchener, is turning new agents away. "Well, the first question is their economic situation. Because for the first time in 20-plus years I can't look a perspective new agent in the eye and say you can definitely make a healthy income and pay your bills in the next 12 months."

But the Regional Realtors Association is trying to recruit new members, people like 29-year-old Kristen Stakel. She's so new to the business that she hasn't had her first closing yet. Stakel previews a property with another realtor in Charlotte's Sedgefield neighborhood. Stakel says she's in real estate for the long haul. She actually appreciates the timing, because she's learning the business in a way that new realtors just a few years ago, did not.

"You know it was hard for them to go through training, be educated, to know all this stuff being a brand new agent and just going out there and having tons of transactions. Whereas I would have liked that, I think it has also benefited me because I'm learning more now."

The slow market is affecting even the most seasoned of real estate veterans. Many have seen their income cut significantly - in some cases by 40-percent. At an event last week in Charlotte, realtors gathered to learn how social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter can help them meet potential clients and sell more homes.

(presenter speaking) "Just understand, it's still about community building, it's still about networking, it's still about relationships. But we're looking at new tools now so you can do that now with a new group of individuals."

Ed Baesel with Cottingham-Chalk Bissell-Hayes was one of the attendees. He's been selling homes in Charlotte for nearly 10 years and says the downturn has created an industry-wide rededication to training. "The people that have decided that this is what I'm going to do for a living, realize that we're in a tough time, and anything that you can do to differentiate yourself or to improve your skill set, or give yourself more tools in the bag, is what you're going to have to do to be successful."

Rick Benfield, the realtor-turned mortgage broker, thought he was in the business for good. But now with a more steady income and a benefits package he didn't have as a realtor, he's not sure he'll ever go back. "I can admit that I'm at a crossroad," he says. "I absolutely loved the business. And I missed the business. And I do miss the business. It was a very hard decision for me to leave. But based on money and the potential of being able to put food on the table was the reason I made this change." As Benfield sits on the fence about his future in real estate, one thing is certain, he won't be tempted to return as long as the market continues to sputter.