Along with rising prices and a growing number of sales, here's another sign of Florida's rejuvenated housing market: more real estate agents.
Last year, 24,183 people passed the state test required to become licensed sales associates. That was 36 percent more than in 2013 and by far the most since 2009.
"We started seeing the increase in 2012 and it's been a steady increase since," said Bob Hogue, whose St. Petersburg-based real estate school prepared 6,500 students for the test last year. "And it's been building for the right reason; in other words, it's not crazy price increases."
In the frenetic days of the boom, Hogue's classrooms were packed with would-be Realtors hoping to cash in on the dizzying upward spiral of home prices. Classes that once drew 60 students shrank to barely a 10th of that during the recession but have since bounced back to an average of 30 or so.
Among the recent graduates: 45-year-old Joseph Sullivan of Tampa.
After 17 years in the accounting department of a Tampa hospital, Sullivan realized he was "tired of sitting in a cubbyhole all day." So he took Hogue's intensive seven-day course in November, passed the state test and hung his license with a Coldwell Banker office in South Tampa.
Then came every new agent's dream.
"Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m. I was walking my dog and this man was out there smoking a turkey so we just started talking. He's from Minnesota and is renting and wanted to buy a house. I said, 'I recently got my license,' and he said, 'I like to give new people a shot.' "
After Sullivan showed him several houses, the man settled on a three-bedroom, two bath place in Brandon. The closing is Feb. 2.
Chalk one up for Sullivan as he joins the 145,525 Florida sales agents with "current and active" licenses. Another 73,000 have inactive licenses, including many who got out of the business when home sales plunged but who might rethink that decision as the market continues to improve.
Although final figures for 2014 aren't yet available, sales of single-family homes in Florida through November showed solid gains over the previous year. And both sales and median prices are expected to rise another 10 percent this year, thanks to a strengthening economy.
For those like Sullivan just entering real estate, the competition is tough but the rewards potentially great. In 2013, the median wage for a U.S. Realtor was $47,700, with half of experienced agents making more than $70,000.
But many who set out to be agents never get far.
Applicants for a Florida sales associate license must correctly answer 75 of 100 multiple-choice questions, including several involving math. That can be a problem for those who can't remember how many square feet are in an acre (43,560) or who can't quite grasp how to prorate property taxes.
Last year, 50 percent of the 27,661 people who took the test for the first time failed it. The failure rate was even worse among repeaters — 66 percent.
Frank Cooke, owner of a St. Petersburg-based real estate school, recalls the pass rate going as high as 70 percent before slipping in recent years.
"I don't know why, because the questions are pretty much the same questions they've always had," he said. "I think that people just don't read the darn questions."
Applicants who fail the first time can repeat the test as often as they want over a two-year period. And those who persevere often end up doing well.
"Some of these people who have to really work can be successful agents," Hogue said. "That's one of the characteristics of someone who's successful in real estate — they don't give up."
As with other professions, more and more aspects of the real estate business are moving onto the Internet. That includes the way many agents now learn the basics.
With few exceptions, almost everyone hoping to become a sales associate in Florida must first complete a 63-hour pre-licensing course that can be taken online or in a classroom with an instructor. It's impossible to say which method produces better results on the state test because no one keeps reliable figures on how the test-takers satisfied the 63-hour requirement.
At the end of the test, a voluntary survey asks applicants if they took the course online or in person. Of those responding between November 2013 and last April, 54.1 percent of the online students passed compared with 37.2 percent who took a classroom course.
That could be "because (online) students have to actually do their quizzes and work through the material and can't just sit in class and go to sleep," said Cooke, whose school does online instruction.
Hogue, whose school mainly offers classroom training, thinks the verdict is still out on whether online is better. He notes that the surveys are unscientific — many test-takers are so eager to finish and instantly find out if they passed that they don't bother to respond.
"This is one reason people want statistical information," Hogue said.
Sullivan, the new Tampa agent who quickly landed his first sale, said he liked Hogue's classroom course because of a sharp instructor who covered the entire 447-page textbook in a single week. Sullivan easily passed the state test.
Then reality set in.
"I was thinking you just get your license and go sell some houses. I wasn't aware how expensive it is to get going."
In addition to $295 for the course, Sullivan paid $53.50 to be fingerprinted, $89 to apply for a state license and $31.50 to take the test. Then came $401 to join the local, state and national Realtor organizations — required to call oneself a "Realtor" — plus $225 for access to the Multiple Listing Service and another $245 for access to lockboxes.
On top of all that, Sullivan invested in a Coldwell Banker "marketing package," which included signs, business cards and professional photos of himself to go on the cards. Not including the $60 a month for desk space at the real estate office, his total outlay with Coldwell Banker is about $900, which will be deducted from his first two commissions.
"I joked about it and said they're nickel-and-diming me to death," he said.
Sullivan doesn't have any of his own listings yet because "I'm learning so much from this first sale, that it's taken up a lot of my time." Still, he hopes to build his business enough to leave his hospital job and go into real estate full time.
Another new agent already working full time is 40-year-old Michelle Steeves. Until recently she did marketing for a personal injury attorney, "but it wasn't my calling."
Her mother, Sylvia Steeves, is a veteran real estate agent who grew up in St. Petersburg and knows the area well. The two women joined Coastal Properties Group, a Christie's subsidiary, and are preparing what the younger Steeves calls a "powerful marketing presence."
"We had discussed over the years of working together and becoming a team but with the ups and downs of real estate, she kind of discouraged me from doing it," Steeves said. "But I told her the time is now. With her experience and my marketing skills, it seems like it would be a great time to get into it."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.