In the classroom, under rows of fluorescent ceiling lights, real estate instructor Robert DiBlasi gazes out across 100 chairs.
Ninety-four of them are empty.
Among the occupied desks that once teemed with aspiring real estate agents is Daven Henry. He irritated his former boss by hurling a Nerf football across his St. Petersburg office. Unemployment followed.
In front of Henry in the limitless elbow room of the front row, Rudolph Wesley sips a tall coffee while underlining text in his 400-page real estate manual. Wesley's mortgage business tanked with the tightening of bank credit. He needs to juice up his income.
The two men share the cavernous classroom with four other hopefuls at the Bob Hogue School of Real Estate in St. Petersburg. They are betting that they can outwork, outsell and outperform the sea of professionals leaving the business, battered by two years of atrocious sales. They see hope in the area's apocalyptic real estate market, where foreclosures outpace sales in many neighborhoods. They may be playing Pollyanna in a field of killjoys, but they sense an opportunity.
All they need is a little training.
First step: Pay $295 for a two-week course at Hogue, one of Florida's top-ranked real estate schools. Second step: Pass the state real estate exam.
It's a cool November morning at the school. DiBlasi keeps the outside door open to enjoy the natural air conditioning, exposing the session to the buzz of traffic on the street.
The instructor trash-talks to spur his students to pass the all-important exam. When Wesley fails to absorb a fact about real estate taxation, DiBlasi says, "I ought to have brought your Ritalin today." Confronted with blank faces on another question, he throws up his hands: "If you get this wrong, lunch is canceled."
Founded by Minnesotan Bob Hogue in 1978, the school on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 54th Avenue N has taken in its trousers. As the number of students dwindled, the staff eroded from a high of 26 to eight today.
"The numbers are way down. But the quality of the students, as far as I'm concerned, has picked up," DiBlasi says. "I give them credit for sitting here 63 hours."
Two years ago, Hogue personally directed the traffic pouring into his parking lot. Some classes enrolled about 100. Now he contends with about half a dozen.
"We've had a full house in that classroom. It was a major event before," Hogue says. "Life is a little easier now."
Why they're here
The six students attending this month followed different paths to the school.
Lou Santiago, 28, quit a job as a paralegal at a Clearwater law firm specializing in divorces because the work was "horribly depressing." He wants to be a real estate investor.
"I think it's an opportunity. Just because it's slow doesn't mean I can't learn," he says.
Forty-something Sandra Castagne worked for condo builders in Chicago for years but never got a license in Florida. Now's her chance. Castagne has heard about money to be made selling foreclosed houses. A profitable sideline is short sales, when the bank lets a homeowner sell his house for less than the mortgage.
"I know the business. I've been doing it so long," Castagne says. "Seems like every home is a short sale."
Wesley is a mortgage broker and investor specializing in rehabilitating homes. He watched as Realtors on his deals scarfed up 3 to 6 percent commissions, money that could have been his if he had taken the course.
"It adds to the resume," the 44-year-old Tampa resident says. "I'm leaving a lot of money on the table by not having a license."
Thirty-two fresh faces
Over at the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, president Deborah Farmer is surprised by the new blood pouring into the business. Just last week she inducted 32 agents, most newly licensed, into GTAR. Though that's far below the 200 monthly inductees of two years ago, she detected no apprehension in the latest crop.
"I looked over at them and said, 'man, do you know what you're doing?' '' Farmer says. "When I got into it 10 years ago, you had to hit the ground running. It was O.J.T. — on the job training. Now things are so slow, they have time to learn."
Henry, the 24-year-old guy sacked over a Nerf ball from his job at Interstate Transport in St. Petersburg, can't wait to get out of the classroom and into the world of real estate sales. He absorbed DiBlasi's lessons, acing the school's final exam with an 89. The state test looms.
Says Henry: "By the time I learn to sell a house, I'll be right there to catch the wave."