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It’s here at last. The recovery of the real estate market, promised for the past five years, has finally materialized. Real Estate headlines in California and other major markets read:

“Sales Bounce Back as Prices Continue to Grow”
“Dollar Volume Up 25.3% in 2013″
“Building Permits Up in 2013″

This is good news for home sellers, home buyers, and home builders. And, it’s good news for those giving thought to starting a career in real estate. The market is on its way up, and whenever markets go up, sales agents incomes go up. That’s true whether the agent is a stock broker or a real estate agent.

For those of you who would like to “cash in” on this upward trend, here are the eight steps to becoming a real estate agent.

Step 1: Read up on state licensing requirements
Each state has its own set of laws governing real estate transactions. Since agents and brokers are the catalysts that make real estate transactions happen, it’s important that agents are familiar with the laws in their state. Your state will have an application procedure that may include various fees, background checks, credit checks, status of other licenses, child support payments, and more. Not every state requires every type of background check, but if your state requires a check that you know you can’t pass – say, if you have a felony conviction – then it’s a waste of your time and your money to apply for a license.

Step 2: Research licensing schools
Real estate licensing schools abound; some offer classroom-only instruction, others offer online instruction, and some schools offer both. Each school’s curriculum must be approved by a state before it can be offered in that state. If potential agents take an online course that is not approved, they will have to re-take an approved course before they can be licensed.

When researching courses, you will find that there are courses for “pre-licensing education” and “post-licensing education”. The “post” courses are those that agents must take to maintain their license. Agents who wish to become licensed for the first time must take the “pre-licensing” courses. The number of classroom hours required will vary with each state.

Step 3: Enroll in licensing school
You’ll find a wide variety of study options. In each state there will be schools that offer back-to-back, Monday-through-Friday 9AM to 5PM classroom study, weekends-only classroom study, evening classes, and online courses. In each case, the length of time needed to complete a course will vary according to the number of classroom hours required by your state and your preferred learning style. If you want to “blitz” the study and get your license quickly, you can complete the necessary pre-licensing training in about two or three weeks. If you study online in a leisurely fashion, it can take up to six months to complete the basic education.

You’ll find that the cost of a course will vary according to the type of instruction. Since classroom study requires a physical facility and an instructor that must be paid, classroom courses are usually the most expensive, and online courses the least expensive. Before enrolling in a course, check with the large real estate brokerage offices in your city; many of them offer instruction for new agents and offer jobs to students who perform well.

Step 4: Pass your school’s pre-test
Each real estate school will issue a Certificate of Training when the course is complete and you have passed their test. Generally, a school’s test is very similar to a state’s licensing test. If you can pass the school test, chances are good that you can pass the state test. The amount of material covered in basic real estate licensing course is huge. Acquiring a license is not for the faint of heart; students must have good reading skills, attention to detail, and good retention. But, anyone who diligently applies himself or herself can pass the test.

Most schools will cover the course material a section at a time, and then administer a written quiz. Quizzes are reviewed in class, and if you miss a question on the quiz don’t be shy about asking for clarification in class (or via email if you’re studying online). You can be fairly certain that the quiz questions will be on the final exam and that the final exam questions will cover material that will be asked when you take the state exam. Don’t be shy! You are paying for this education, and you can only get your money’s worth when you have all your questions answered.

Step 5: Study!
Passing your school’s test is a good start, but you’re not there yet. Your next challenge is to pass the state licensing exam. Most real estate schools offer some sort of study guide for each state’s licensing course. The guides will prepare you for taking the state test by offering sample questions and reviewing the material. One tip offered by most agents is to memorize the real estate terms that are offered in the glossary of the study material. Confusing real estate terms is the number one reason that applicants have difficulty with the licensing test.

Step 6: Pass the state licensing exam
Curiously, state licensing exams aren’t administered by the states. States generally contract for this service with a professional testing company. Information on who administers your state’s test and where you can take the test will be covered in your pre-licensing course. These tests require your physical presence; they can’t be taken online. To avoid fraud, you must present valid identification when you appear to take the test. You will be photographed, and you will pay the testing fee. Once all that is done, you will be ushered into the testing area, where you will sit in a cubicle with a computer.

The test format is simple, consisting of a series of multiple choice questions. It’s a timed test, but there is usually plenty of time. Here’s where your purchase of a study guide will come in handy: you will have learned the question formats and know how to proceed through the questions in a confident manner. Your test results will be mailed to you. If you failed the test, you can take it again within a certain amount of time. The testing fee must be paid every time you take the test.

Step 7: Get your license
Once you have passed your test you may then complete the state license application and apply for your background checks. If accepted, your license will be mailed to you. If not, you will receive a denial letter.

8. Find a broker to hold your license
New licensees aren’t free to begin selling real estate. Until they are experienced enough to acquire a broker’s license, new agents must work under the auspices of an established broker. Brokers are almost always hiring, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find an agent’s position. When you are hired by a broker, the broker is required to take your license and publicly display it in his office. In the parlance of the trade, this is called “hanging your license”. If you leave one brokerage for another your license will follow you. If you leave the business, break the rules, or don’t keep up with your continuing education requirements, your license will be cancelled by the state.

It’s as simple as that. The learning curve is steep, but compared to many other trades and professions it’s a pretty simple process. Becoming a real estate agent can be accomplished in a matter of weeks or months, rather than years as in other professions. And if you play your cards right, becoming a real estate agent just might be your ticket to financial freedom.

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Some time ago, I was on the phone with my friend Steve, and he was trying to convince me to ditch work and meet a group at the golf course.

“I can’t make it, Steve; I’m working”.

“Working? Since when do real estate agents work? What does a real estate agent do, anyway? You guys are just overpaid chauffeurs.”

I was annoyed, but I did my best not to show it. I’ve known Steve long enough to not be insulted by his lack of tact. But, I found myself revisiting the conversation for the rest of the day. And boy, did I tell him off…in my imagination.

What does a real estate agent do? Well, let me tell you:

A Buyer’s Agent
When I was a new agent, I worked primarily with buyers. Buyer inquiries were plentiful, and I didn’t have any listings so being a buyer’s agent seemed like a good way to get started. I worked in a small brokerage; there were just seven agents. Because we were small, the agents were assigned housekeeping duties. Everyone had to keep their own area vacuumed and tidy, and each agent was responsible for cleaning the common areas once a week. “Common areas” included the waiting room, bathrooms, conference room, kitchen area and hallways. I could get the job done in about an hour, so when my turn came up I’d arrive at the office early to take care of housekeeping chores.

In the beginning, I came into the office at least five days per week. If I was the first one to arrive, I’d make a pot of coffee and review my schedule at my desk. I’m big on keeping a “to-do” list. Nothing fancy, just a legal pad containing a list of all the things I have to do. As items are completed, I cross them off; as new items come up I add them. Once a week I prioritize what needs to be done that week.

Scheduled items for this week include a Lions Club breakfast meeting on Wednesday, a closing on Thursday and volunteering at the library book sale on Friday night. I don’t like to volunteer on weekends unless I have to, because weekends are prime selling time. I have a sales training meeting on Tuesday morning and three (so far) appointments with prospects. I have one client scheduled for showings on Saturday morning.

When I’ve reviewed my to-do list, I check my messages. These days, I get messages via voice mail, email, SMS text message, and Facebook. Everyone has a preferred way to use technology, so I have to be reachable via several mediums. I’ll spend the next hour or so returning messages in the same fashion that I received them: if I got a text, I’ll return by text; if by voice mail I’ll return via telephone, and so on.

Next in my routine I update clients on my progress in locating a new home for them. I always do this via email, so there will be a record of my activities for the client. I keep each client’s correspondence in a separate email folder so I can find information when I need it. As I write my reports, I review the client’s correspondence and pay special attention to changes in their preferences. I often find myself adding items to my to-do list as I review my client’s comments. Once I’m reminded of what each client is looking for, I log onto the local MLS to review new listings and the newest Hot Sheet. If there have been changes – new listings or changes in price or terms for viewed properties – then I make a note of the change and notify the appropriate clients.

When I’ve updated my clients I turn to any administrative tasks that need to be done to complete pending sales. Sometimes I’ll contact a listing agent to discuss an offer, or a home inspector to follow up on an inspection. I like to keep the process moving along toward closing.

These activities take up most of my morning. When I’m done, I break for lunch. After lunch, I hop in my car and personally inspect any listings that I haven’t seen. I take my own photos of these listings, because the photos on the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) rarely show any problems with the properties. However, problems are what kill a sale, and I like to know what they are before driving my clients to see a home. I keep the photos in a digital file, along with a pdf copy of the MLS listing.

A Seller’s Agent
As I became more experienced, my broker allowed me to take listing appointments. My to-do list grew proportionately. Being a listing agent requires an additional skill set.

For starters, I had to work on my sales skills regularly. Fortunately, my broker was willing to set aside time to help me to accomplish this. Being a buyer’s agent, at its essence, is more or less “show-and-tell” coupled with good negotiating skills. Either a buyer likes a home or they don’t. Listing agents have to know everything that buyer’s agents know, plus how to sell their services to property owners as well as market and advertise properties. So, to my already lengthy buyer’s agent to-do list, I had to add the following items:

Create and execute a marketing program to attract sellers. I determined that I would engage in a postcard mailer program; I’d mail a “list with me” or “just sold” postcard to all homes in my market niche (this is called “farming”). Rather than do a huge mailing monthly, I’d run about 50 or so labels every day and mail the pre-paid postcards. Over the course of six months, I was able to send out over 6,000 cards which resulted in 150 listing appointments, 90 listings and 24 sales (by me or another agent) – a little less than one sale per week.
Create and execute a marketing plan for each of my listed properties. Every day I’d spend time creating flyers or ads for the local Homes for Sale Magazine, or updating the MLS listings, or creating online ads and property-specific websites. Fortunately, I am able to purchase drag-and-drop and fill-in-the-blank templates for all of these tasks. That’s good because the templates not only save me time, but avoid the cost of hiring a graphic designer.

Listing properties isn’t all glamour and dollars, however. I had to find time in my schedule to inspect properties, take photos, locate wells and septic systems, and find property lines. I’d often find myself traipsing across fields and through underbrush looking for surveyor’s property markers. Unfortunately, it mattered little what the weather was like when performing these tasks. Rain or snow, hot or cold, once I had a listing contract the MLS required me to put the property details onto the MLS within 24 hours or I could be fined. And, once a property was sold, I had to assist the seller in making sure all the inspections were done in a timely manner.

Conclusion
What I like best about being a real estate agent is that, for the most part, I control my own schedule. I’m expected to put in a certain number of office hours per week, but once I’ve done that I am free to come and go as I see fit. Although I try to keep to a daily routine (office/admin in the morning and mobile in the afternoons) that isn’t always possible. Sometimes I’ll get an early phone call from an agent who wants to show one of my properties but can’t get in and I have to run right out to open the house.

One thing is certain: real estate agents are far from glorified chauffers.

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