The flood of residential real estate agents that entered the business as the housing market surged back to life after the Great Recession is receding.
Drawn to the industry by booming home prices, the prospect of large commissions, and a low barrier to entry, the number of active agent and broker licenses in Los Angeles spiked in 2015 but dropped significantly last year. That drop was the first major decline in five years, as many agents and brokers were likely pushed out by intense competition for limited inventory.
“A lot of agents are sort of attacking the same markets like hyenas,” said Eric Sussman, a lecturer at UCLA’s Ziman Center for Real Estate and a managing member of Clear Capital, a real estate private equity firm. “There are only so many mouths you can feed with so many transactions. The supply of residential properties in a market like Los Angeles is relatively fixed. You don’t see a gazillion new homes or condos being built. And you have people here already to sell that supply. It’s a zero-sum game.”
There were 27,420 active broker licenses in Los Angeles County last year, a 15.4 percent decline from a year earlier. That compares with a 15 percent increase in 2015 to about 32,400 licenses, according to data from the California Bureau of Real Estate. The number of active agent licenses dropped by 11.5 percent last year to 75,720. That followed an 18 percent year-over-year rise in 2015.
Aspiring agents have been called to the promise of big bucks due to the astronomic growth in home values over the last half-decade. The median home price in the county has risen by 86 percent since 2012 to $540,000 this year, according to Redfin data.
Tami Pardee, chief executive of Venice-based brokerage Halton Pardee + Partners, has noticed the pullback in new agents. Pardee said she has been receiving fewer calls from rookie agents looking to show buyers homes her brokerage has listed.
“They call you with the weirdest questions because they don’t know what they’re supposed to be asking. It’s exhausting,” she said.
Pardee said a spike followed by a decrease in the number of agents in town is typical.
“In ’06 and ’05, oh, my God. There were a zillion people coming in,” she said. “Everyone I met got their real estate license.”
The decline in the number of agents has accompanied a dip in demand for high-end homes in the county in the last couple of years, with the growth in sales volume year to year for homes selling for more than $3 million slowing. Last year saw just a 3 percent sales-volume increase in that category compared with a 38 percent jump in 2015, according to the California Association of Realtors.
That could be due in part to political and economic uncertainty as interest rates begin to rise and the Trump administration clarifies its economic policies. Taken as a whole, these factors could have turned many aspiring agents away from the business and toward a steadier paycheck as the broader county economy chugs along, UCLA’s Sussman said.
While reality television shows such as “Million Dollar Listing” and “Real Estate Wars” have glamorized the profession in recent years, the truth is most agents struggle, said Michael Nourmand, president of Beverly Hills brokerage Nourmand & Associates.
“Eighty percent of the market is being run by 20 percent of brokers in town,” Nourmand said, with up-and-comers left to fight for the remainder.
Real estate agents in the county earn $60,000 a year on average, while brokers earn about $73,000 a year, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Can I tell you how many people come up to me and say, I’m going to make a million dollars? Pardee said. “People think it’s easy and it’s not.”
Madison Hildebrand, an agent at Partners Trust, is one of the stars of Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” a show he said has contributed to the impression that being a real estate agent is a glamorous job and easy money.
“In L.A., either you’re on a reality TV show, or you’re an actor, waiter, model, or a Realtor,” Hildebrand said. “More young people thought real estate was sexy and cool (because of the show). The show doesn’t show … what it takes to be successful.”
The business has always been roiled by cyclical market conditions, but changes to the practice over the last 15 to 20 years have added new wrinkles.
A generation ago, Nourmand said, real estate agents were perceived as one notch higher than a car salesperson.
While that perception has been altered, in part by reality TV, the power of the agent has been eroded by some degree by the advent of technology.
Online search tools such as Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, and Realtor.com have given homebuyers a trove of information at their fingertips. That means clients are also quicker to challenge an agent’s role in a transaction and ready to negotiate when it comes to their commission.
“What I tell people is you’re not hiring me to sell your house. You’re hiring me because I can get you more money than someone else can,” Nourmand said. “In a bad market, you’re actually hiring me to get your house sold.”
A Redfin survey from June of more than 2,000 people in eight major U.S. markets says that 60 percent of respondents who sold a home were able to reduce their agent’s commission. The average commission paid was about 3 percent compared to the traditional 5 percent. Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson expects agent commissions to keep dropping this year, according to a different report published by the brokerage.
Agents and brokerages are having to ramp up their marketing dollars in order to cut through the noise. Pardee said her brokerage spends $215,000 a month on internet advertising, noting her marketing budget has gone up by about 20 percent on average every year for the last 12 years. Nourmand said his company hired a public relations firm a year ago and tripled its marketing staff.
With downward pressure on fees as well as high office rents, increased marketing budgets, and ramped-up competition for top agents, it’s becoming harder to keep margins up, he said.
“People always say it’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” he said.