COVID layoffs spur interest in real estate agent classes

Earlier this year, Markham Thomas got furloughed and later laid off from his job selling advertising, a field he’d been in for over 25 years. He took a real estate course and now has his “45-day card,” a temporary pass to sell homes before receiving his license. 

Switching careers is “a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but COVID is also once in a lifetime, so I took the opportunity,” said Thomas, who lives in the Beverly neighborhood and is working for Anchor Realty, based in the Roseland neighborhood. 

He is one among many Chicago-area people who’ve turned to residential real estate in the wake of furloughs and job cuts. At the Chicago Association of Realtors, enrollment in pre-licensing courses was up nearly 71 percent in this summer compared to last year, according to Lanora Tolliver, the group’s education admissions representative. 

Most of the surge was in August, when enrollment was up 154 percent from the same time in 2019, according to Tolliver.

“These are people who’ve been furloughed or lost their jobs and looked for something in a business that won’t get shut down again,” Tolliver said. In the spring shutdown orders, real estate was classified as an essential business, although the industry had to quickly devise new, safer ways to show property and to handle the closing process. 

Along with the increase in real estate students, CAR’s membership has grown. New memberships were up almost 54 percent in the June-August period from a year ago, according to Jessica Kern, CAR’s communications director. She declined to disclose the specific numbers on membership. 

Baird & Warner’s real estate school has also seen a significant increase, with 126 students this summer, up from 18 in summer 2019. Stephanie Eder, the Chicago-based brokerage’s manager of career services, said some of the increase is due to the firm’s effort to grow the program but that most of it is the result of “people who were working in industries that were demolished this year—hospitality, restaurants—looking for something that’s going to be more stable in the future.” 

New real estate agents are arriving at a good time in the housing market, as home sales have been fast and furious while households take advantage of record low interest rates to trade up to homes that meet their need for larger space while working and schooling from home. 

Kati Baker, director of recruitment for Downtown Apartment Company, which leases the units in a couple hundred apartment buildings, said the number of resumes she gets has doubled in recent months. 

“But I don’t have twice as many jobs to fill,” Baker said. 

One of the things that draws the newly unemployed to her business, Baker said, is that there’s no licensing required, “so you can get started earning money again right away.” 

For new real estate agents, who earn their income in sales commissions, there’s a startup period of little or no money coming in. 

“Right now I’m living off savings,” said David Davis, a new agent at Keller Williams One Chicago in Lincoln Park who was laid off from a job in recruiting several months ago. “But I see this as a business that isn’t going away anytime. People are always going to need to find a place to live.” 

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