Entering the World of Real Estate, for No Pay

The New York TimesFebruary 06, 2012
n past years, becoming a real estate agent was rarely a first-choice gig. For many people, it was a way to pay the bills while trying to break into another field. For some, it was a second career — or maybe a third or a fourth — tackled after the children went off to college, or earlier paths fell off a cliff.

But more recently the image of the real estate agent has moved away from racks of keys and dingy walk-ups. Sashaying into the limelight by way of reality television and eye-popping sales, the profession started to seem a bit glamorous — and compelling enough that some young people are willing to try it out for no pay.

Please welcome to the bottom of the food chain an ambitious group willing to do anything, earn nothing and wake up early on a Sunday to fluff the couch cushions at your open house: the real estate broker’s interns.

This is the height of the internship application season, and young people — at least those who can afford to work without receiving a meaningful paycheck — are weighing their options. Those who choose to spend the summer in the land of expensive apartments may enjoy these tasks: copying keys, sending out Evites, promoting the boss on Facebook and hiding a seller’s dirty socks when potential buyers come calling.

But there are some perks as well.

“On my second day of work, I was in a $28.5 million apartment,” said John Liss, 18, who was an unpaid intern at Gumley Haft Kleier last summer, and is now a licensed agent with his own listings.

Unfortunately, his cut of that million-dollar-plus commission would have been nothing.

Everyone has heard intern horror stories: A bright young English major spends the summer at a fashion magazine, wedded to a coffee urn, making dentist appointments for her manager without a dime to show for it. And the resistance to endless hours of free labor has lately been picking up steam. Two men who interned on the movie “Black Swan” and one former intern at Harper’s Bazaar filed lawsuits in recent months alleging that their arrangements violated wage laws, and in December, Schneider & Rubin, a law firm that specializes in representing interns, opened its doors.

Federal guidelines require that an unpaid internship (a term that comes from the first year of training that doctors receive after medical school) satisfy six criteria, including that the “trainees” must be taught things they might learn at vocational school or an academic institution, and that they not displace regular paid employees.

Even if training is given, however, some industry professionals consider interning with a broker a peculiar arrangement.

When professional agents start their careers in earnest, “the pay is so infrequent, it’s almost like an internship already,” said Robert Morgenstern, academic director of the continuing education programs at the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University.

“Why wouldn’t you just take the licensing course and become a salesperson?” he continued.

According to Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,” internships have become par for the course in the white-collar work force, but they are especially concentrated in fields like music, movies or media that have an “aura of glamour.”

“They’ve made it basically a requirement that you work unpaid for some period of time,” Mr. Perlin said. Young people, he added, “are told it’s more valuable to be doing something for free in a glamorous profession than it is for them to be working at Jamba Juice.”

Real estate brokers may not be stuck behind a desk, but the profession does have some less enchanting attributes, like being effectively on-call 24 hours a day, and going without one very substantial convenience: a salary. But on television shows like “Selling New York” on HGTV, those drawbacks don’t tend to pop out.

“I’m obsessed,” said Maxine Fouladi, 19, who interned at CORE Group NYC last summer under the managing director Emily Beare for a stipend and a small end-of-summer bonus. “I initially got interested in real estate because I was watching HGTV.”

Freddy James, a senior vice president of program development and production at HGTV, said viewers of “Selling New York” tended to react most strongly to the broker’s commission, prominently displayed in a little bubble on the screen, even more so than they did to the sticker price of a home.

“I see people say: ‘That’s my annual salary! How could they make that in just one sale!’ ” Mr. James said.

Not all broker interns are aspiring superagents. Many, like Mr. Liss, plan to go into real estate development after college and signed up to work for an agent as a way to get to know the business.

Regardless of what has drawn them in, a growing field of real estate professionals stand ready to take advantage of this new labor supply.

A Web site called Intern Profits, based in California, offers instructional videos on what companies can do with interns. “The Single Best Labor Force to Grow Your Real Estate Business!” a headline reads. “Why interns are much better than hiring cheap ‘offshore’ or third world country labor,” a bullet point boasts.

One of the founders, Dreama Lee, said in an interview that the company advocated only internships that provided valuable training in exchange for labor.

And then, of course, there are always opportunities available on Craigslist, where a broker at Bond New York recently placed an advertisement calling for “licensed real estate interns.” (At most firms, agents are independent contractors and are free to do their own hiring.) Inquiries about the advertisement lead to Noah Freedman, one of the company’s founders.

“I don’t know what an intern with a license would be,” said Mr. Freedman, who explained that he had not yet seen the ad. “That sounds a lot like a real estate agent to me.”