Not long after Terri King set up her real estate brokerage in Asheville in 2011, a salesman stopped by the office while King was talking with an employee at the front desk.
“He said, ‘I’d like to talk to Mr. King,’ and I just turned to him and stuck out my hand and said, ‘I’m Mr. King,’” she recalled recently.
These days, however, female real estate agents seem to be the norm rather than exceptions.
Nationwide, women account for 65% of Realtors, the National Association of Realtors says, up from 57% in 2010. A look at the online rosters of agents at the largest firms in Buncombe County suggests that women make up a majority of brokers here also, although many top-level jobs are still held by men.
Local women in the business say the job requires good listening skills, the ability to motivate yourself, knowledge of the community and the housing market and, yes, hard work. Those interviewed for this story said their gender hasn’t been a barrier to them in the field.
In addition to earnings, they cited rewards such as being your own boss, having schedule flexibility and the satisfaction of guiding clients through what’s often the largest financial transaction they will ever make.
Luck and timing
King, a Buncombe County native, began her working life as an agricultural extension agent. Seven years later, she was working with tobacco farmers in Madison County when changes in the federal tobacco program portended big changes in her job. She switched to real estate sales in 2003 and later started her own small firm.
The 2008 housing crash wiped out her business, and King, who by that time had a master’s degree in entrepreneurship, began producing and selling furniture made of reclaimed wood from old barns. Each piece came with a written description of the wood’s provenance and a photo of the barn. In 2011, King bought the local Coldwell Banker franchise — the previous owner had gone out of business — and started a brokerage practically from scratch. She transferred the furniture company to her business partner in order to focus on real estate.
“This was when everybody thought real estate was over; they thought real estate was never going to come back,” King recalls. “When I told family and friends and other businesspeople … everybody was like, ‘Oh, Terri, don’t do this.’”
Today, Coldwell Banker King has five offices and about 90 brokers. After the crash, says King, there were fewer firms and brokers in the market, creating more of an opportunity for her company as real estate did indeed come back.
“There’s no substitute for luck and timing,” she observes. “I just believed I lived in an area where people wanted to live, and boy, has that proved true.”
The first years, though, were tough. “I just put my head down and worked at it,” she remembers.
The road to success in the industry is often a curvy one. In a nationwide survey by the National Association of Realtors, only 5% of respondents said that real estate was their first career. (Realtors are members of their local real estate association and must adhere to the NAR’s code of ethics. Licensed brokers do not have to be Realtors, although many are.)
Vanessa Byrd, a broker at Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty, got her undergraduate degree in interior design and was buying, restoring and then selling historic homes when the housing crash came. She became a Realtor in 2010.
Mary Cade Mainwaring majored in psychology in college and planned to become a therapist, but a few years after graduation, she starting working at her father’s real estate agency. She later turned to selling Mary Kay cosmetics for a few years before returning to real estate and now works at Town and Mountain Realty.
For a real estate broker, having a healthy network of friends and acquaintances is an especially important asset. Gaia Goldman’s story illustrates the difficulty of starting a career in the industry without one.
She entered the field in the Sarasota, Fla., area shortly after graduating from college in the late 1990s. But, she says, “I quickly found that the normal, average consumer was really skeptical of trusting their lifelong investment to a 22-year-old.”
Goldman taught herself Spanish and focused on the needs of Hispanic families, whom she says most other local Realtors were ignoring at the time. Most of her clients had limited budgets, however, and the approach required selling many “little houses for not a lot of money.”
She made 28 sales in her first year. “It was incredibly hard work, but it was incredibly validating to help these people who knew even less than I did about buying a house.”
Goldman and her husband, who serves as her back-office support staff, also took a career detour, running a family resort in the south of France for five years before moving to Asheville in 2013. She now works out of the Biltmore Park office of Beverly-Hanks, Realtors.
Making your own way
Women in the business offered several explanations for the large number of female agents in residential real estate. Some are drawn to the field as a way to generate a second paycheck to supplement their spouses’ earnings, they say, adding that the work allows more flexibility for taking care of family matters than a typical hourly wage job.
But whether a broker is male or female, it’s good to have a backup way to pay the bills during the often lean early years. In 2019, the median gross income for Realtors with less than two years’ experience was $8,900, an NAR survey found.
There’s disagreement, however, as to whether part-time agents can be effective. Some say the need to keep track of the market and be available to clients argues for full-time work; others maintain that both approaches can be viable.
Either way, “It takes a lot of perseverance,” cautions Sherrie Puffer, co-owner and operating principal for both Keller Williams Asheville and Keller Williams Elite Realty. “I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s easy: I can just put people in my car and go buy houses. How hard can that be?’”
Some women brokers maintain that what are often viewed, fairly or not, as female attributes — things like empathy, communication skills and listening ability — give women a leg up as agents. “This is a business of relationships. It’s a business of advocacy. It’s a business of education,” notes King. “It takes skills and talents that women just naturally seem to have.”
Mainwaring, a 52-year-old widow who has one daughter in middle school and two in college, says she likes “the ability to make your own path, make your own schedule and be as independent as you want to be.” Among other things, she explains, that means “I can go to the ballgame or the dance recital.”
Because agents are paid by commission, notes Byrd of Mosaic Realty, “You get out of it what you make it.” But at the same time, “There is no guarantee that you’ll make anything.”
Being your own boss is “the blessing and the curse of this particular career,” says Goldman. “You don’t have anyone telling you what to do. … For those who expect guiding and prodding and reminding, that can be very difficult.”
Puffer, meanwhile, says clients have become more demanding, and it’s up to agents to set boundaries to maintain work-home balance.
“Clients will call at 10 or 11 at night if they’ve seen a house on the internet they’re interested in,” she explains. For various reasons, they may not be able to view homes or negotiate a price during normal business hours. “We as a company don’t stipulate the hours you work. … However, agents tend to work more than they should,” Puffer reports.
Residential vs. commercial
“I have never felt held back in real estate in any way because I was a woman,” Mainwaring declares, and other women in the business sound a similar note. Some clients prefer a female broker, Byrd points out. Goldman, though, says, “I don’t think gender is a factor in whether I get chosen or not” by a particular buyer or seller.
When it comes to commercial real estate or to owning a brokerage, however, the gender breakdown appears to be different.
Although Xpress wasn’t able to obtain an exact tally, internet searches and interviews suggest that a majority of the owners of the top 10 local real estate agencies (as measured by sales volume) are men, and the same holds true for both top officials and ordinary brokers at the area’s most prominent commercial real estate firms.
Several women interviewed acknowledged that distinction. Although women have a big influence on home buying and selling decisions, a commercial real estate deal is “a business-to-business transaction with overwhelmingly male decision-makers,” says King.
For her part, Byrd says men “totally dominate” commercial real estate, adding, “That’s a good ol’ boy system for sure.”
King, however, also wonders why more women don’t start their own real estate agency. “The industry is filled with women who are very successful in this business, and why don’t they make the transition to ownership?”
Historically, she believes, women have felt they “needed permission somehow to think bigger” and consider running or owning a firm instead of just working there.
Susan Clark, an associate professor of management at UNC Asheville, says that while there’s great diversity along gender and other lines in America’s front-line workforce, women are still vastly underrepresented in the top jobs in many fields.
This year, a record 7.4% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are female, up from just 3% in 2010. However, the current figure still contrasts sharply with women’s 47% share of the overall workforce.
Meanwhile, a look at company websites reveals that the CEOs of the five largest real estate franchise brands — Keller Williams Realty, Re/Max, Coldwell Banker Real Estate, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Sotheby’s International Realty — are all men. Residential real estate consulting firm T3 Sixty based its ranking on 2019 total sales.
Clark attributes much of the imbalance to “often unconscious” expectations that men are better suited to roles such as heading up an organization. When people think of entrepreneurs or CEOs, they tend to think of men, she says. “Our perception of who should be a leader is still very male.”
Some women, she continues, share that perception, and the fact that there aren’t more well-known female entrepreneurs who can serve as role models contributes to the problem. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Clark, whose research interests include gender equality in the business world and support systems for entrepreneurs.
Another factor is that in many families, women are still expected to bear most of the load of caring for children and running a home, she points out. The absence of universal paid parental leave and universal child care in the United States, both of which are offered in many developed countries, compounds the issue, she says.
But even women who don’t have children or whose children are adults, says Clark, “still have trouble getting appointed and elected, so there’s something else going on there.”