Improving Lowcountry housing market prompts increase in number of real estate agents

Realtor Jennifer Hale places an “open house” sign for a new listing in the front yard of a home Thursday in North Charleston.

Jennifer Hale, a 40-year-old former event planner, was intrigued by the homebuying process when she moved to the Lowcountry from Michigan about three years ago.

Mount Pleasant primary school teacher Chris West contemplated a part-time gig as a real estate agent for years, but only recently delved into the profession that he called “a life-long interest.”

They aren’t just new representatives of the Coldwell Banker United Realtors offices in Summerville and Mount Pleasant. They’re also part of a resurgence in the ranks of local real estate agents.

“Now that family is settled and the housing market is looking up, it was a great time to get into it,” said West, 35, who added that the sales gig supplements his teaching salary. “Just like being a schoolteacher, I just enjoy working with and helping people.”

West isn’t alone in his rekindled optimism for the residential real estate business. A combination of falling prices, low mortgage rates and the strengthening economy are fueling a rebound that has the industry feeling increasingly upbeat about the future.

Experts are predicting 2013 be a strong year for home sales in the Lowcountry, largely mirroring the growth from last year, when 10,588 homes were sold. That was the most since nearly 13,000 homes changed hands in 2007, just before the last downturn, according to Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

The improved outlook for the industry means more people are looking to earn a living by showing and selling homes, which in turn is driving demand for more sales offices.

“In real estate, agents work on commission, so when the housing market improves, there is an increase in real estate businesses opening due to potential sales and growth,” said Denise T. Ogden, a marketing professor at Penn State University.

The local Realtors association had 3,542 registered real estate agents in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties in 2012. That’s up slightly than the previous year but down 27 percent from the 4,837 members it had around the peak in 2007.

Membership is down by about 60 so far this year, possibly because of Realtors letting their licenses expire, but officials are optimistic that the steady rise in home sales will spur new interest.

“In the past two years, our new member orientation classes were trending closer to 30 to 40 people. Now they are running between 60 to 70,” said association spokeswoman Meghan Byrnes Weinreich.

The statewide decline was more severe than in Charleston. Membership at the Columbia-based South Carolina Realtors skidded 35 percent from a 2007 high of 20,546 to 13,263 as of Feb. 1.

“The good news is that we ended 2012 with virtually the same number of members from the previous year,” said Nick Kremydas, chief executive officer of the statewide trade group. “I believe the market and the industry has stabilized and has a bright future. We are predicting that membership will increase slightly in 2013.”

Kremydas also said he expects incomes for agents to climb this year.

The median gross income of Realtors nationwide was $34,900 in 2011, up from $34,100 in 2010, according to the National Association of Realtors. It releases its 2012 salary report in May.

With more agents come more offices.

As of this month, the Lowcountry added three new real estate offices, bringing the total to 706, or 44 more than at the end of 2011.

The growth trend is in contrast to deep retrenchment of recent years: In 2008, real estate firms occupied 918 brick-and-mortar locations throughout the region.

Some firms shrank or closed for good. Others merged, as illustrated by the 2008 deal that folded Coldwell Banker LaTorre Realty, an established James Island agency, into ERA Tides Realty.

Carolina One Real Estate, the region’s largest residential agency, merged its two West Ashley sales offices into one in 2009.

As sales rebound, firms are restaffing mostly in the markets where demand is greatest. RE/MAX Advanced Realty, for example, has opened a branch in West Ashley while Folly Island-based Fred Holland Realty opened on James Island. Other new locations includes Matt O’Neill Real Estate in Mount Pleasant and House and Homes Real Estate in Summerville.

Jim Chisholm decided to open his one-man operation at his home in Summerville after more than a decade with Exit Realty. Chisholm said his decision wasn’t driven by the recent turnaround in the market since the groundwork took nearly a year before opening in October.

“I really just wanted to try to do it on my own,” Chisholm said.

Matt O’Neill, who calls his firm a “high-end boutique,” said he chose the high-traffic Johnnie Dodds Boulevard for its visibility and quick access to homes in Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island and Isle of Palms.

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

“We also got phenomenal visibility. ... It’s like a big billboard,” O’Neill said.

Not everyone is focused on adding more brick and mortar locations, including Carolina One Real Estate, which has 750 agents spread over 10 locations.

Michael Scarafile, president, said the big firm recently added some support staff, but there are no immediate plans to open more offices,

Scarafile said the company feels it is already well-positioned. He noted that Carolina One has adapted and diversified its business to offset the drop in sales activity. In addition to shedding a West Ashley office, the company launched services to “benefit the market needs.”

That included a focus on property management to capitalize on the rental boom. The firm also added a division to handle home insurance and short-term vacation rentals for investors.

But Carolina One may be the exception.

On-site sales teams are beefing up as homebuilders create housing developments. The Carnes Crossroads project at U.S. Highway 17A and S.C. Highway 176 in Goose Creek is case in point.

Also, national real estate firm Keller Williams Realty Inc. recently opened a West Ashley office on Sam Rittenberg Boulvard. Another big-name franchise, RE/MAX, also is planning to increase its reach in the Lowcountry with at least three more offices this year, officials said.

Sam Broadway, a Realtor in the Summerville area since 2005, said he plans to go out on his own by opening RE/MAX Main Street Realty later this year somewhere along Flowertown’s Main Street area.

Broadway hopes to recruit as many as 20 agents within two years.

“Things are improving, and it’s just the right time to make some changes,” he said.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 843-937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.