People keep joining the real estate profession, new data show, as the housing boom pushes more newcomers to seek what they believe are the riches of home sales.
According to statistics compiled by the National Association of Realtors, there were 976,960 real estate agents nationwide at the close of last year, 12 percent more than there were a year earlier.
The increase in Maryland was similar last year, according to the Maryland Real Estate Commission, with 39,703 people holding licenses in the state, a one-year rise of 13 percent.
The national Realtors' group expects to reach the million-member mark during the next few months.
Veteran and rookie real estate agents credit the growth to a sizzling real estate market and a trend toward younger people entering the profession.
Some agents are skeptical about the growth in their ranks, saying too many people are joining a profession that they think is a lot easier than it is, noting that extraordinarily low mortgage interest rates have pushed more buyers into the market.
"It's a very easy business to get into," said Gilbert D. Marsiglia, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors, whose ranks have grown 17 percent during the past year, to 23,224 members. "But it's extremely hard to be successful."
Many economists expect housing sales to cool this year after three years of record growth, but most expect the market to remain healthy.
Matt Sniscak, 23, of Ellicott City is studying for a state real estate license after a short career selling insurance. Sniscak has high hopes for his new career, saying he expects it to be more rewarding personally and financially.
"I'm hoping to make between $60,000 and $70,000 in my first year of sales," Sniscak said.
Other newcomers are pleased with the choice they've made.
"I've only been in real estate for a little while, and I'd estimate that I'm already making $52,000 a year," said Janis Hall, an employee of Century 21 Real Estate in Baltimore since March 2002. She moved to Maryland last year after spending time in retail and as a flight attendant.
"I had heard the market was doing well, but I'm still amazed at my success," she said.
Industry statistics show that 86 percent of new Realtors leave the business after their first year. Of the newcomers who stay beyond that first year, about 7 percent renew their licenses. About 76 percent make less than $30,000 a year.
"When the feeding frenzy finally slows down, people will simply stay away and leave the business," said H.T. Brown of Century 21 Real Estate in Laurel.
Many longtime agents worry that too many people are joining the business in hopes of making quick money and that the industry's reputation might suffer.
Most agents earn commissions based on home sales, but experts said marketing and other costs often swallow any profits during the first few years as agents make names for themselves.
Course fees and licensing exams can cost less than $300, but agents often spend money on advertising, computers, office materials and transportation costs.
"I think a lot of new agents are getting in without knowing how much is involved in a doing a professional job," said Janice West of Century 21, who has been selling real estate for 19 years. West said she works 24 hours a day, getting calls from clients at all hours.
The national Realtors' group said the typical Realtor is a 51-year-old married woman who works about 40 hours a week and earns about $52,200. The average age has been falling during the past few years.
"We're seeing a lot of young people choosing real estate as a first career," said Steve Cook, vice president of public affairs for the Realtors group. "And a lot of young people who had previously worked in telecommunications are making the switch over to realty."
The Maryland Association of Realtors said about a third of its members have been in the business for less than four years. The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors said about 40 percent of its members have been in the business for three years or less.
Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. reported a 30 percent growth in the number of people training to be Realtors. In 2002, Long & Foster trained about 5,600 students. Last year, the company trained about 7,200 new agents.
"There is always room for good new agents, especially the way the market is right now," said Joan Lowrey, a trainer at Long & Foster's Timonium training center.
Lowrey noted that the industry has been recruiting more agents who speak various languages because the industry expects more immigrants to buy homes in coming years, given government efforts to increase homeownership.
Jennifer Cabeza, 32, said she entered real estate so that she could work from home and take care of her young children. Cabeza, who started with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in White Marsh in October, said she sold $1 million worth of real estate during the past month.
"I love it because you can go as far as you want if you put your heart and mind into it," said Cabeza, who added that the hot market helped her decide on real estate as an occupation. "I knew the money would be there if you could get the clients."
She expects to earn about $50,000 during her first year.
Though many Realtors remain hopeful that the market will remain strong, many acknowledge that this recent run can't last indefinitely.
"The real estate market is running at a very, very strong pace right now, and we predict it will continue to do so in the next year," said Celia Chen, a market analyst from Economy.com in West Chester, Pa. "But as mortgage rates begin to rise, housing demand will soften a bit."
Some industry leaders said there will always be room for new agents. "I don't think we'll see a radical decline in Realtors any time soon," Cook said. "There is a growing population in America, and the demand for houses must be met."
Jennifer Cabeza of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage had almost $1 million in listings during the month of December. A Jan. 18 article was incorrect.The Sun regrets the error.