The ultimate guide to starting out in real estate — according to top agents with billions in career sales

  • Starting a career as a real estate agent can be exciting and scary, especially during uncertain times.
  • And having a strong first year in the field can make all the difference when it comes to success.
  • To help you get started, Business Insider spoke with 9 industry powerhouses from across the country for their tips on the first year in the job.
  • Choosing the right market, sourcing clients, and making timelines were just 3 things that agents said are crucial at the start. Above all, you'll have to work hard, even if you feel like you have a lot of free time.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Starting a career as a real estate agent can be both thrilling and scary, especially during 2020, a year full of unpredictability for the housing market and the economy as a whole.

New agents have to focus on several crucial aspects of the job, including which parts of the market to get involved in, what brokerage to work for, how to network effectively, and how to manage their time.

Needless to say, having a successful first year in the field can make all the difference when it comes to success, so to help you get started, Business Insider spoke with nine top agents from all around the country for their top first-year tips.

Choosing the right market

Agents just starting out should be open to working in any kind of real estate, according to Lisa K. Lippman, the top agent at Brown Harris Stevens for the past four consecutive years.

"Picking a specific market will limit you," Lippman said. "New agents should be open to everything, rentals, smaller transactions, any neighborhood you can learn about."

But top agents agree that when it comes to location, you should strategize before you get started. Get into the market where you know you have an established network who will come to you for your real estate expertise, said Chris Halstead and Sharon Fahy, a top-producing Halstead team now working under Brown Harris Stevens. 

Compass broker Michael J. Franco agreed. "If an agent who is new to the business is considering options for which market to choose, they should first and foremost go with an area where they have contacts and connections," he said.

"So much of the business — especially getting started — is focusing on your network," according to Franco. "If you happen to have no contacts or connections, which is rare, then I would choose a developing market like Nashville, where there are many people from all over the country relocating." 

And while you might be hesitant to start out in your own neighborhood or even your hometown, that's perfectly fine if it's the market you're most familiar with, according to agent Christopher Totaro of Warburg Realty. "It is best to go with what you know, so if possible, start with where you live or an area that is familiar," he said.

Whatever market you choose, make sure you commit to learning everything about it. 

"Track the market. Study what houses have gone to contract, have price reductions or expired unsold," Angela Retelny, a top broker in Westchester County, New York, told Business Insider in an email. Make sure you have personally seen most of your properties in person, so you can build a knowledge base to empower you when you go on your own listing presentations, showing properties, and advising clients on presenting offers, she wrote.

"Be a student of the market!" emphasized Jonathan Spears, a 28-year-old real estate powerhouse with over $600 million in career sales, in an email. "Your value as a real estate agent is providing market knowledge and insight that would be a valuable asset to a consumer looking to buy or sell in the marketplace."

The world of real estate is vast, but Spears encouraged new agents to pick one segment of their local market and become an expert. It's important to identify a "specific area" or "demographic of inventory," he explained.

Location is just one part of the puzzle, though.

Joining a team 

Finding a partner or joining a team can work to your benefit as a new agent.

"It can be more beneficial to find someone to partner or team up with," said Lippman. "It's about finding a balance with someone for what value you add and what they bring to the table."

But you shouldn't do it before you know where you stand. It's important to first understand the market and find out what you know and don't know, Halstead and Fahy said. Take every opportunity you can to learn, help experienced agents with open houses and where else they need support. From there, they said you can make a decision on if you want to partner or create a team. Doing this will help you know what value you bring to the table.

Franco agreed, "If you don't have a strong portfolio of clients and you are new to the business, you are probably better off on a team to start. If you are younger, you might want to find an assistant position on a productive, successful team."

Totaro said it "really depends upon your financial situation, prior career, and life experience," he said. For a younger person with limited experience or limited capital to sustain through the first year in business, "the right team can be an amazing way to gain a significant amount of experience."

"Try to nestle yourself under the market leader or a market leader," Spears said. "That knowledge and understanding is why somebody will hire you. I was working as an assistant for $10 an hour for the first two years of my career. That time frame was paid education. I couldn't replace it today."

The leader you choose "should be an accomplished, experienced agent that you admire. and who can teach and advise you," Retelny wrote.

Lippman agreed: "Be willing to be an apprentice to someone more experienced, even if you have a lot of business to bring to the table. This lets you see all the different aspects of the business and what it means to be selling all the time."

Sourcing prospects is a grind, and you need to structure your time

The agents agreed that hard work is a necessity. "Just be prepared to put your nose to the grindstone and work harder than ever before," said Hilton & Hyland's Linda May, a Beverly Hills super-agent with over 30 years in the business.

May said to network as much as possible and get to know agents at your brokerage and outside of it, but the work doesn't stop there. Volunteering to help at open houses and canvasing neighborhoods to get in front of as many potential clients as possible is key, she said, and can make a big difference for an agent.  

Bess Freedman, CEO of Manhattan-based firm Brown Harris Stevens, also said helping seasoned agents with their open houses is a great way to meet potential clients. Offer to help more seasoned agents and do their open houses and showings, she wrote in an email.

The first year is especially tough, many agents agreed, because it can feel so empty and you have to create your own structure, but doing exactly that is hugely important.

In the beginning, new agents should set their own benchmarks, Halstead and Fahy said. These benchmarks can include a certain number of transactions and doing deals in different neighborhoods across various types of properties.

What it comes down to is that prospecting for leads is hard, said Halstead and Fahy added. Also, you have no real schedule and a lot of free time, so it's important to create a structure and treat it like a position that has expectations. Ultimately, success comes from working harder than your contemporaries, they said.

Retelny said you won't always feel like you're busy your first year, so you should use your free time to become well versed in the real estate world. Fill that time intelligently to set yourself up for success, she said. "Keep in mind that if you want to succeed in this industry that real estate is a full-time business!" she wrote in an email.

"There are no off days in real estate," May chimed in, saying you should "prospect and be on the phone every single day." Setting attainable, realistic goals for yourself will make it so you're not overwhelmed. Generate a certain number of leads every month and "be sure to consistently network like crazy," she said. If you do the work, she promised you'll see tangible results.

Eric Goldie, a real estate agent with Compass, told Business Insider that tapping into your network from previous jobs, college, and even high school can help you meet new clients. 

"I've found that staying connected with old friends is a great way to make new clients. People who can attest to your character will be most likely to refer you to people they know," he wrote.

Retelny went further, emphasizing that real estate is a people-driven business. "Guard your reputation with your life. It is everything in this business. Your reputation is the one thing that arrives in the room before you do," she said.

Other things to keep in mind during your first year

Goldie explained to Business Insider that prior to starting his real estate career, he made sure he had a good cushion of money to lean on for the first year. 

"Have a cushion," he wrote. "Your first year can be slow as you begin to build your business. I had a year's salary saved up before I decided to begin my career in real estate. It was probably more than I realistically needed but it's best to be safe and prepared."

And while you're spending your time learning all that you can about the business, Spears advised against becoming a prognosticator. "Focus on facts and put away the so-called 'crystal ball,'" he told Business Insider in an email.

Spears explained that beginner agents should not make predictions on the future of a marketplace, especially in uncertain times. 

As a real estate agent, he said you have to think less like a "salesman" and more like an "adviser" when there are volatile signals for both you and your clients.

Add it all up and it's easy to enter the real estate profession and hard to make it work, with really high rewards for those who do.

Franco, citing NAR data, said the attrition rate for new real estate agents is "something like 85% in the first five years," and probably higher in New York City. The bar for entry is relatively low but the bar for surviving and thriving is quite high and "not for the faint of heart," he said. But if you're competitive like him, he said, "you'll love it."

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