With the holiday season in full swing, Tampa Bay residents are shelling out big bucks on gifts, decorations and entertainment. And for one large group, there's an extra seasonal expense.
Within the next several weeks, bay area real estate agents must pay hundreds of dollars each if they want to remain in business.
In Hillsborough County, agents have to fork over $120 in dues to Greater Tampa Realtors, $136 to Florida Realtors and $120 to the National Association of Realtors — a total of $421 due by New Year's Eve.
For agents on the other side of the bay, it's a total of $449 to the Pinellas Realtor Organization and the state and national organizations.
Those sums are more than what lawyers pay to the Florida Bar each year ($265) and that physicians pay to the Florida Department of Health ($379) every two years to keep their licenses active. So are Realtor dues too high, especially when Florida agents make an average of just $35,000 a year and many earn far less?
"Absolutely," said Nick Janovsky, an agent since 2015. "It is burdensome and a large expense that a lot of us would like to see go away."
Janovsky thinks that membership in the local Realtor organizations is most helpful for new agents who can take classes that advance their knowledge beyond what they needed to pass their licensing exams. But at the same time, rookie agents struggle more to pay the high dues.
"For those folks getting into the business, the first year or six months they usually don't see an income," Janovsky said. "It could inhibit their performance financially so less money could be spent marketing.''
Julia Brazier, who has been an agent in Pinellas since 2002, agrees that the professional dues are too high.
"Most definitely," she said. "There is resentment."
Brazier has questioned the value of membership in the Realtor organizations since 2012, when Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. It would have drastically raised flood insurance premiums, devastating the real estate business in coastal states like Florida.
"I was outraged that none of these expensive associations saw fit to warn or inform us of its existence, not to mention the horrific potential ramifications," she said. "It was a huge disservice to Realtors and our clients.:
Brazier made similar comments in a 2012 letter to the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). After it was published, "I received about 30 calls and emails from Realtors all over Florida thanking me for calling out our associations," she said.
When Congress took up the flood insurance issue again this year, Realtor organizations were more vocal than before as they pushed for an extension of rate subsidies. But Brazier recently bristled at the Pinellas Realtor Organization's stance on a contentious local issue — should St. Petersburg limit the size of new homes?
Brazier lives in the city's Old Northeast, one of several Tampa Bay neighborhoods where residents complain that huge McMansions are hurting the area's charm. The Realtor organization, in a statement referring to "aging and antiquated" structures, supported zoning changes that would have allowed new houses to be even bigger than what builders and city staffers proposed.
"I read this as total disregard for our 'antiquated' historic neighborhoods," Brazier said.
The organization reached its position through "some good, thoughtful reasoning," president David Bennett said. "It was based on what we know about real estate, what the consumer is looking for, what's good for our community."
In general, Bennett said, the Pinellas Realtor Organization provides "high value" to its nearly 8,000 members through professional development classes, sales and price statistics, a magazine and other services. He called its dues "very reasonable" and said they haven't risen much in two decades.
But Brazier and other agents note that the Realtor dues aren't the only fees that agents must come up with each year. They also must pay for access to the Multiple Listing Service, without which it is nearly impossible to work as a real estate agent.
"It starts to get a little pricey when you add that on top," says Heath McCoy, an agent in Hillsborough County.
As a member of Greater Tampa Realtors, McCoy pays $324 each year to use the MLS. And there's more. Agents must also buy "lock boxes''— they cost around $130 new — to put on the door of each property they list so other agents can get in for showings. And then they have to pay fees to unlock the lock boxes.
Kathy Presley, another Hillsborough agent, moved to Florida from Oklahoma where lock boxes were free to dues-paying Realtors.
In Florida, the Realtor fees "seem kind of high," she said, "but what do you do?"
The local, state and national Realtor organizations are non-profits that are required to file detailed annual reports with the IRS. According to their most recent filings, for the 2015 tax year, all are operating well in the black, with millions of dollars more in assets than in liabilities.
Florida Realtors, for example, which collects about $130 every year from each of its 170,000-plus members, had $28.3 million in assets and just $6.4 million in liabilities in 2015. CEO William Martin made $373,390 that year.
The organization — which calls itself "The Voice for Florida Real Estate in Florida" — compiles sales and prices statistics from around the state, publishes a monthly magazine and lobbies lawmakers on issues affecting the housing business. Among what it touted as its "big wins" this year was helping put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would result in additional homestead tax exemptions.
Not all agents bristle when it comes time to pay their dues.
"I think for what we get with the association, they are fair," said Alex Saudi, a member of Greater Tampa Realtors.
Tampa agent Karen Fate goes even further when asked about the dues.
"I feel they should be higher to weed out those who are not in the profession full time," said Fate, a Realtor since 2001. Nor does she agree with the argument that the dues are especially onerous on new agents.
"That's part of what you should know going into it," Fate said. "Any Realtor who starts in this profession should have three to six months minimum (of savings) set aside in addition to an operating budget. If you can't do that, this is not a business you should be in."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate