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I’m starting a 12-step group for former real estate agents. It will go something like this, “Hi, my name is Brian and I’m a real estate addict. It’s been nine months since my last rental and I feel really good. I’m still having rental dreams and yesterday I walked past a vacancy sign and I got chills. It may have been a flashback. If anyone is going for coffee, I’d love to talk about it. Thanks.” (group response) “Thanks Brian…keep coming back.”

It seems in the last few years, every lawyer, teacher, stock broker, bartender or bus driver who had a bad day at the office, ditched their former career for a lottery ticker in real estate. I figure sooner or later there is going to be a serious need for affordable counseling. With all the talk about bubbles, crashes and slashes (real estate jargon, not strippers), if the well does run dry, how will these new agents survive?

Even in my own little chop shop (rental office), I’ve noticed a few fidgety agents quietly reading the help wanted websites, while supposedly searching for listings. Troubling indeed. Hushed conversations, and muffled voices are nothing new in a real estate office, but it’s my hunch they aren’t talking rentals this time.

For last week’s column, I traveled to midtown to talk to new cadets preparing for the front lines at the “Institute.” This week I had to look no further than my next door neighbor and my local dog park to find two examples of agents surrendering the fight and quitting the business.

In his best month, Todd did eight deals. Not bad for a guy who started less than a year ago. He has a degree from an Ivy League University and worked in social services before becoming an agent. Overall he’s done well, working with one of the biggest rental houses in the city. But apparently the money isn’t enough, and for now he’s hanging up his keys.

An even-tempered guy, you can hear the irritation in his voice when he starts talking real estate. “Our inventory sucked. Most companies had the same exact apartments. We offered nothing unique, and most of it was crap. You have 50 agents showing the same apartment. It was a free for all.”

The more we talked, the more agitated he became, “I spent all my time showing junk apartments that they could get on their own. If I gave them one website or one phone number, they could rent it themselves. We were basically advertising no-fee apartments. It felt unethical. I felt really guilty taking people to those places.

“The institution of the rental company, the structure itself breeds a kind of a dog eat dog world, where you have to be a shark. They just aren’t nice people, and they’re really intense. I’m not like that.”

It’s easy to see how a person who isn’t motivated by money, or doesn’t get juiced by doing deals would become quickly frustrated. Todd says he had very little in common with his fellow agents. But his real grudge is with the companies themselves. “They offer very little, and I’m giving them half of every deal. You run your ass off, and in the end, it’s the rental companies that make out.”

Eight months as an agent and he’s finished. For now he’s studying Buddhism, practicing yoga and writing. He’s saved enough money to take a little time off, and may get back into social services.

I was in the dog park when I learned that Charlie was leaving as well. I was surprised, as it was only a month or so ago when he suggested I join his company. He summed it up this way, “I stopped going to the parties. I stopped networking. I wasn’t doing anything to keep my business going because (long pause)…I just hated it.”

Burn out happens in real estate because you push it, and push it, and push it. You don’t realize it and six more months go by, and then it really hits you.” He anticipated anxiety and some financial fear when he left. But the minute it was officially over, he says, “All I felt was liberated.”

Like a lot of people I know, Charlie was lured in by a friend who at the time was making great money and claimed to be working very little. If you’ve ever tried illicit drugs, you can probably relate. He admits that back in 1999 when the market was “ballistic,” it was an ideal gig for an actor. Short hours, big paychecks and no serious commitment. In his opinion, it was Craigslist that crashed the party.

Before these interviews, I pictured myself doing a sort of Barbara Walters-intervention-style-interview where we confronted their denial, and learned that although they had left the business, they were still secretly posting on Craigslist… just for the thrill of it. There were no breakdowns, no regrets, and no secret postings. I’m thinking the 12 step group for former agents might not be as helpful as I imagined. These two guys couldn’t seem happier.

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