The Real Estate Job Shuffle


A growing number of New Yorkers whose jobs in finance, publishing, or computer science have been casualties of recent economic woes aren’t waiting for the economy to pick up. Instead, they’re taking matters into their own hands, abandoning their original plans in order to take a job in real estate. It may sound like one of those miracle jobs advertised on the subway (“Earn thousands in your spare time!”), but for a couple hundred dollars and a few weeks of classes, you can get your real estate license and be on your way to making a healthy living in an industry that insiders say has limitless earning potential.

“When I started this company 10 years ago, one of the biggest hurdles was getting qualified people to work with our customers. It was hard enough to find someone with a high school diploma, let alone a college or graduate diploma,” recalls Andrew Heiberger, president and CEO of Citi-Habitats. But after the stock market imploded, the real estate market was one of the only businesses that thrived, and Heiberger witnessed an exodus from other industries. “The quality of people applying for jobs has been very impressive. We have Harvard M.B.A.’s, attorneys from top law firms, and high-level advertising executives.”

Robin Schneiderman, 25, was on the fast track to becoming a Wall Street whiz kid when his career took an unexpected turn. One of an elite group admitted to a trader training program at Goldman Sachs, Schneiderman learned that, due to cutbacks, only three trainees would get jobs. Schneiderman took a real estate course at night and, the day after he left Goldman, started working at Citi-Habitats. And he hasn’t looked back.

“I’m passionate about my career,” says Schneiderman. “I’ll probably be in this business for the rest of my life.”

To get a license to sell real estate in New York City, you must complete a 45-hour classroom course, offered at a number of New York schools for $200 to $300. It covers laws and regulations, human rights and fair housing, real estate finance and math, construction and environmental issues; it prepares you for the New York State sales test, given weekly in Manhattan. Then, a real estate office—ostensibly the one where you will work—must sponsor you for you to obtain your broker’s license.

The Real Estate Education Center (REEDC) in Midwood, Brooklyn (, 718-339-7845), is one of the state-certified schools that offer the course. Alexander Frame, a former realtor who now runs the school, says he is indeed seeing increased enrollment, as well as a change in the type of student.

“The vast majority now have college degrees,” says Frame. He says he sees a lot of refugees from the banking and computer industries, changing careers because of burnout or layoffs. He estimates that the number of licensed agents in New York City has doubled in the last five years.

While the course prepares potential agents with the basics, it doesn’t necessarily teach them the nuances of doing business in the industry. Some real estate agencies are implementing their own training programs. Incoming agents at Citi-Habitats, for instance, attend a five-day course at the company’s new training facility. The course consists of classroom time and field training, and covers product knowledge, rental search techniques, writing effective ads, time management, completing leases and forms, and ethics.

“Once people come out of our program, I think they’re armed with the resources they need to be successful.” says Jimi Economou, head of human resources for Citi-Habitats.

Because a real estate agent’s salary is typically based on commission, the amount a new agent can expect to earn varies. Heiberger of Citi-Habitats says that realistically, a newcomer could earn between $60,000 and $80,000 in his first year. “The best [earnings] I’ve seen in the first year has been $200,000,” he says.

Elizabeth Kohen, a sales agent for Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy & Garfield in Park Slope, Brooklyn, isn’t in it for the money—though it certainly helps. Kohen, who studied theater and psychology in college, worked at talent agency ICM, where she found herself glued to her cubicle. At a friend’s suggestion, she got her real estate license. Now, she says, she has freedom and flexibility, and is able to pursue her own interests.

“I get to structure my day and do all the things I want to do,” says Kohen, who volunteers for a charity and is producing a documentary in her spare time. She says that her new career pays better than her old job, though managing money is a challenge; her commissions fluctuate during slow months.

“I have a lot of actor and singer friends who are real estate agents,” says Kohen. “It’s nice, because they can pursue their other dreams as well. And it beats waiting tables.”