Real-estate agencies in the central San Joaquin Valley are on a hiring spree that may mark the end of the deepest home-sales downturn in decades.
Just two years ago, real-estate agents saw a record number of foreclosures and were swamped with houses they couldn't sell. With commissions dwindling, many fled the business.
Today, the job looks more appealing. Real-estate agents are encouraged by low interest rates, a stable housing inventory, low prices and recent federal and state homebuyers tax credits that have driven up home sales.
Now dozens of people in the Valley -- retirees, young professionals, or those looking for a career change -- are getting their real-estate licenses and going to work for local agencies.
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Firms such as Guarantee Real Estate, London Properties and Century 21 M&M Associates have been recruiting between four and 12 real-estate agents a month since January.
It's not a big risk for brokers to take on new agents, because the agents are paid commission only if they make a sale. For the agents, however, getting into the business can feel like going out on a limb.
"I've asked myself if I am crazy for doing this," said Art Falcon, who joined London Properties about a year ago full time. "But I keep going back to thinking it's a great time to be in real estate."
It's also a risky time to be in real estate, however. No one knows how long the glut of foreclosed homes will continue to depress prices.
No one knows when homebuyers -- briefly encouraged by a federal tax credit that expired in April -- will regain their old confidence.
But for many, the allure of a real-estate turnaround outweighs the risk.
A new beginning
For Charlie Pruitt, real estate was the beginning of a new career backed up by years of business experience. Pruitt spent the last 35 years in retail management and was most recently the Gottschalks store manager at Fashion Fair mall.
"This was an opportunity to be an independent business person," said Pruitt, who joined Guarantee in January. "One of the great things about this business is I don't have to buy any inventory. I just go out there sell it and list it. So, that to me is one of the opportunities."
When Gottschalks closed last July, Pruitt immediately began taking real-estate classes. His customer service, merchandising and selling skills carried over easily, helping him to quickly build a list of clients.
Pruitt is among an increasing number of agents and brokers statewide to get their real-estate licen-ses this year. The California Department of Real Estate issued 1,838 licenses in March, 3% over the previous month. In January, the number was 1,488.
The overall number of licensed real-estate agents and brokers statewide peaked at 549,244 in November 2007 and is now down 10%. The number follows the ups and downs of the real-estate market, said Tom Poole, spokesman for the department.
Locally, there is evidence of a turnaround.
In April, home sales increased overall in the Valley, with 1,379 homes sold in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties, compared to 1,265 in March, according to DataQuick, a San Diego-based real-estate research firm.
And Valley real-estate training classes are filling up, with some scheduled twice to meet the demand of those interested in learning more about the market.
Nancy Kazel-Ramos started taking real-estate classes three years ago. When she retired as a Fresno County clerical supervisor in 2008, she turned to real estate to earn more money and to learn about something that has interested her for years.
"My son asked me, 'Why are you going into real estate?' " said Kazel-Ramos, who was hired by Century 21 M&M in Clovis. "It's because I enjoy it and I have all the education behind me to do a good job. There are a lot of people in the market."
New real-estate agents include some with no experience, like Kazel-Ramos, and others who worked in the business and left years ago, said Leslie Noll, the Century 21 M&M sales manager. She has hired one to five new real-estate agents a month since January.
The Clovis office has 26 agents and is expected to add four more in the next month.
The number of agents is expected to double next year when the office relocates to a bigger space in the old ACE Hardware store in the Outpost Shopping Center in Clovis.
Guarantee Real Estate on average has hired between six and eight new agents every month since the beginning of the year. The firm has 458 active agents in 13 offices across the Valley.
London Properties has brought on board as many as 12 real-estate agents a month since the beginning of the year.
"We're very optimistic about the [hiring] momentum," said Patrick Conner, president and broker of London Properties. "The market has been bouncing somewhere near the low end, which means prices at some point here in the not too distant future will probably start to tick up again."
Higher home values mean better commissions for agents even if there are fewer home sales in the future, said Connor.
Falcon, of New London Properties, said he hopes to invest in real estate some day. He wants to transition out of his home-based communications and technology business, managing databases for clients, into a full-time career in real estate.
It took several months to close his first house, but now he's got several listings and several sales going on simultaneously.
Falcon admits the first few months as a new agent are tough when income is tied to selling a home. Some agents that he started with a year ago are already out of the business, he said.
"You have to work almost twice as hard these days because you're not making close to the money they were a couple years ago," Falcon said. "I had a pretty good year. I'm really feel like right now things are starting to take off."