Becoming a Real Estate Agent: Lisa’s Story

How a stay-at-home mom reimagined her career in real estate
Posted by on Thu, Apr 17, 2014

Becoming a real estate agent

Becoming a real estate agent is a smart career choice for many people looking to transfer past experience to a new career.  Lisa Cirillo, a newly licensed real estate agent in her early 50s, began her professional life as a graphic designer in the 1980s and early 90s. After her marriage and first child, she continued to freelance from home, but eventually took a decade off to be a full-time mother of three.

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Finding a new calling

When her children were older, Cirillo began to think about working again. In 2005, she gave graphic design freelancing another try, but it wasn’t the same. The digital explosion had brought many changes to the industry, and Cirillo, who was unfamiliar with a lot of the new software, decided not to retrain. “It was a young person’s industry,” Cirillo explained. “Clients felt younger designers had fresher ideas, and I felt burnt out, like I had outgrown the industry in one sense and like I was not up to par in another,” she said. Yet, she still “had a desire to work with people again and not just sit at a computer by myself.”

In 2008, Cirillo signed up for a job helping nursing home residents fill out Medicare applications, but she still did not feel like she had found her niche. Cirillo’s mother, Elaine Wegrzyn, an agent of 30 years, began encouraging her daughter to give real estate a try. Wegrzyn offered to be Cirillo’s mentor, and in 2012, Cirillo decided to become a real estate agent. “My kids were older, I knew it could be a lucrative career, and I was attracted by the flexible schedule,” said Cirillo, who still wanted to be available to do “mom things,” such as cook dinner and support her teenage daughters’ activities.

Getting started

Becoming a real estate agent in New York state requires 75 hours of instruction in a licensing course, either online or in a classroom. Cirillo finished her class in two weeks by going Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. She then took her license exam within a week so that all the information was still fresh in her mind. She passed the test on the first try and received her license. At this point, a new real estate agent usually interviews brokers before choosing one to affiliate with, but Cirillo signed on with Realty USA right away to begin working with her mother. Wegrzyn had joined Realty USA because they adhere to a philosophy where honesty, integrity, and the client are always the top priorities. This was important to Cirillo who had heard some negative stories in the past about competitive agents and office politics.

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Growing her business

Cirillo is now very happy at her Realty USA office in Williamsville, New York, where the other brokers “are always willing to help out, and my manager is always there to answer any questions I have.” One opportunity the company offers, which Cirillo recommends to new real estate agents, is a mentoring program in which new agents share their commission with experienced real estate agents who assist them in their first three or four sales. She also encourages others interested in becoming a real estate agent to help out busy agents with their open houses and take turns on office phone duty to begin building up a network of clients.

A particularly useful exercise her manager gave her to do right away was to identify her “sphere of influence,” or list of potential clients, by making a spreadsheet of her family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Cirillo sent out a mailing to some of these people announcing her new business as a real estate agent and almost immediately received her first listing from a family in her neighborhood. The home sold in one day. Cirillo was thrilled, but quickly points out that this situation is not typical. “It takes many new agents six to eight months to sell their first home,” she explained.

[Learn how you can become a real estate agent.]

No regrets

Real estate agents are independent business owners working under the umbrella of a broker, and marketing oneself like Cirillo does is only one of an agent’s typical expenses. Cirillo also notes that there are office supplies to pay for in addition to professional dues, licensing fees (real estate agents must keep their licenses renewed), mandatory fees for continuing education credits, and paid services to contract relating to appointments and lock boxes. Cirillo estimates that it costs her at least $1,500 to $2,000 a year to run her business. As a business owner, she must also pay quarterly taxes and is responsible for paying her own social security taxes and self-employment tax. She points out that real estate agents usually need to find their own health insurance if they are not covered under a spouse’s insurance already.

So far, the benefits have clearly outweighed the costs for Cirillo, who sold 12 homes in her first year as a real estate agent. According to a survey by the National Association of Realtors, trust is the quality that most people look for in a real estate agent, and Cirillo confirms this. “When you do a good job for one client,” she said, “they spread the word. Real estate is about trust, knowledge of the market, and providing good services to your clients. You can regulate your earnings by controlling how many clients you decide to take on and how much marketing you want to do.”

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What advice does Cirillo have to share with others who might be thinking of careers in real estate? “This business is far more emotional than I ever dreamed it would be,” said Cirillo. “It is emotional for people to sell their homes, to negotiate, to go through the inspection process and decide who is going to pay for what. Real estate agents help take the stress out of the situation and keep everything flowing,” she described.

In the end, Cirillo recognizes that real estate has the potential to be a very lucrative career, but that’s not what she likes best about it. “It just feels great,” Cirillo says, “to help someone realize their American dream of buying a home.”

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