- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008

When Martha Schmidt began her real estate career about 50 years ago, there weren’t any listing services, lockboxes or cell phones. Ms. Schmidt, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Damascus, and other veteran Realtors have witnessed many changes in the industry during the past half-century.

Subtract 50 more years, and that’s when the National Association of Realtors (NAR) was founded. The organization celebrates its 100th anniversary this year after getting its start in Chicago in 1908.

Imagine a time when anyone could declare that he or she was a real estate professional. By the early 1900s, land had become a major commodity, and homeownership was highly desired by the growing middle class. It also was a time when fraudulent real estate deals were rampant.

Frederik Heller, historian and librarian for NAR, said license laws were nonexistent when the association was founded. “Anyone who felt like calling themselves a real estate broker could do so. Beginning in the 1910s, the states began to adopt license laws, establishing educational requirements, business regulations and consumer protections for those in the real estate industry.”

In 1923, NAR created a model license law for state legislatures to consider. According to Mr. Heller, the majority of the states had license laws in place by 1930.

There have been numerous demographic shifts in the century since NAR was established. According to NAR, the country’s population has more than tripled, from 87 million in 1908 to 300 million today.

At the turn of the 20th century, NAR research shows that fewer than half of all U.S. households owned a home. Today, homeownership approaches 70 percent. Many of those homeowners depended on a Realtor to close the deal, which is why NAR has grown from its original 120 members to today’s 720,000 members.

Veteran Realtors such as Ms. Schmidt, who got into the business in 1962, said that both agents and buyers have become more sophisticated through the decades. “I remember when all you needed was a smile and a short skirt to get into the business,” Ms. Schmidt said with a laugh. “Now there’s so much more you have to know and keep up to date on,” she said, adding that laws and technology are changing constantly.

Contracts also have become more complex. “There used to be a one-page contract. If I don’t have 41 pages now, then I think that I must be missing one,” Ms. Schmidt said. She added that some contracts can reach 60 pages.

Mr. Heller agreed that Realtors have more responsibility today, adding that “real estate transactions are much more complex than they were 30 years ago, or even 15 years ago.”

He said that in the 1980s and 1990s, most states adopted a variety of disclosure laws that covered things like representation, the condition of the property and environmental disclosures.

“Real estate agents and brokers have to be aware of a whole host of laws and requirements to help protect their clients, their businesses and their careers,” Mr. Heller said.

Ms. Schmidt vividly remembers getting up early in the morning to get the newspaper before it became popular to use computers to get the latest information. She read about open houses and called clients to tell them to meet her at one of the properties for sale.

Dixie Meadows of RE/MAX Sails in College Park has been in real estate for 33 years and remembers the days before the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). “All of that information was carried around on cards, but it was not updated frequently,” Ms. Meadows said.

Real estate professionals said the invention of tools like the lockbox helps Realtors save time. Ms. Meadows said that before using the lockbox system, she had to go wherever the listing agent’s office was to pick up the key to preview or show a home for sale.

She said that before secure lockboxes came along, the boxes were generic and posed problems because thieves or anyone who had ever been an agent could access them.

It’s hard to imagine life without a cell phone, especially if you’re a Realtor. When the first generation of cell phones came out, Ms. Schmidt said, she was on a six-month waiting list to get one. “There was a big, huge bag that you had to take with you to charge the battery,” she said, adding that the cell phones back then were nothing like the sleek, portable models today.

Realtors agree that technology and the advent of the Internet probably account for the most recent and dramatic changes in real estate. “The availability of information has changed,” Ms. Meadows said. “More buyers are very involved as active participants in the search process.”

Mr. Heller said that the Internet has brought some major changes to the industry over the past 10 years or so. He said home buyers and sellers do a lot of their own research online before ever contacting a real estate agent. Just a few years ago, people would go to an agent to get detailed information on communities, sales prices and property taxes, but that’s no longer the case. “It’s made the industry much more competitive and creative,” Mr. Heller said.

Linda Simpson works for Weichert, Realtors in Silver Spring and is president of the Prince George’s County Association of Realtors (PGCAR), which is celebrating its 75th birthday this year. She has been a Realtor for 29 years and said that when PGCAR was founded in 1933, the average price of a house nationwide was $5,000.

Ms. Simpson added that the civil rights acts and the Federal Fair Housing Act have played a large role in the history of real estate by making homeownership a possibility for more people. She also said that 100 years ago, when the NAR was founded, the group was made up entirely of white men because neither women nor blacks were allowed to join.

When the association was founded, the primary function was to “unite the real estate men of America,” according to Mr. Heller. “That phrase shows up countless times in the association’s early record, and it accurately reflects the makeup of the industry in its first decades; real estate was a man’s business.”

Through the years, Mr. Heller said, more women began to take on real estate careers. It was during World War II and the postwar years that women began to enter the business in significant numbers.

“In 1949, only 2 percent of NAR’s members were women; today, that number has risen to 60 percent,” Mr. Heller said.

However, regarding what has not changed, Mr. Heller said that the average age of Realtors curiously has remained almost the same. In 1949, the typical Realtor was 52. Today, the typical age is 51.

Ms. Simpson began her career in the summer of 1979 and remembers interest rates being around 12 percent but going up as high as 22 percent. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1981, she said, the rates started going down. “There were a lot of ups and downs.”

“This market, however, is the most interesting. I haven’t seen a market like this one with all of the foreclosures,” she said.

“The recent market makes people pause and use more judgment in their purchase,” she said, adding that buyers are becoming much more informed about the type of loan choices. “Many of the loan products didn’t exist years ago, as there were only 30-year, 15-year and FHA mortgages,” Ms. Simpson said. “You have to be able to make good judgment.” She adds that adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) loans are the right choice for some consumers.

Ms. Meadows said that real estate is still a good business to get into and advises newer agents to be prepared to work hard and know what is going on in their local market.

Ms. Schmidt teaches a real estate class and often tells her students that success is a combination of “attitude, skills and knowledge.”

“I love it. I like what I do and the people I work with. I enjoy seeing someone else happy,” said Ms. Schmidt, summing up her 50-year career. “If they’re happy, then I’ve made it.”

Ms. Simpson agrees that while the basic requirements to become a Realtor remain the same, there is a lot more to learn. She adds that Realtors who got into the business between 2004 and 2007 saw a different kind of market than the one today. “They didn’t have to hone their skills or do marketing,” she said.

“Finding the right niche, becoming involved in the local community, and being creative in serving clients have always been vital for success in real estate, even back in 1908,” said Mr. Heller.

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