The Power is Now

Thousands join real estate business – Crain’s Chicago Business

Keki Cannon was working as a home stager for real estate agents and an interior designer when the pandemic arrived, “and you couldn’t go into anyone’s house anymore,” she said. After her husband’s job in finance was cut, and after she finished the spring 2020 semester of home-schooling her three kids, she took a real estate licensing class.

Cannon joined the Winnetka office of @properties in January 2021, and a year later she had nearly $4 million in sales volume and was nominated for the firm’s Rookie of the Year.


Cannon is among thousands who’ve turned to selling real estate in the housing boom that the pandemic ignited. They say they were attracted to real estate for its vitality during a period of economic instability, for the be-your-own-boss, write-your-own-ticket nature of the business, and, as new agent Oscar Toldeo said, because “it’s fun.”

Membership in the National Association of Realtors rose to more than 150 million for the first time in 2021, the group’s chief economist, Lawrence Yun, reported at Chicago and suburban market forecasting events in mid-January.

All three major membership groups for Chicago-area real estate agents say their ranks grew significantly in 2021, the hottest year in more than a decade for real estate. The Mainstreet Organization of Realtors, the largest suburban association, had 18,351 members, up 8.6% from the end of 2020. In most prior years, the group’s growth was in the 2% range.

The Chicago Association of Realtors ended the year with 17,046 members, up 6.1% from a year earlier. And Illinois Realtors, the statewide membership group, ended 2021 with 54,748 members, an increase of 6.8% during the year.

Membership in the three groups overlaps, but at Illinois Realtors, the catch-all, the ranks have swelled by more than 4,000 people in 2020 and 2021.

“Real estate stayed open safely for the extent of the pandemic,” said Jeff Baker, CEO of Illinois Realtors. “People in real estate kept working, and I think people who felt the economic impact of the virus in their lives saw that.”

A booming housing market is generating a lot of business for real estate agents. Home sales in the metro Chicago area were up 14.5% in 2021 from 2020, according to Illinois Realtors data released Jan. 20. That’s on top of the 8.9% increase in 2020, when the housing boom didn’t kick in until June. In all, 2021’s tally of sales was more than 27,300 above 2019, the last normal year.

It’s likely that in subsequent years, when the housing boom fades, some agents will leave the business, as happened after the wild real estate years of the early 2000s. A question for the last-in agents will be whether they’re first out.

It wasn’t easy to break into the business, said Cannon, one of those last-in agents. New agents are exhorted to “get out there,” she said, and make contacts at the children’s school or sports events. “But there was no going to soccer or hockey, no standing around the playground after drop-off,” she said. Instead, Cannon started mailing cards printed with some of her best recipes and her contact information. “That’s where my first business came from,” she said.

Yun and Baker both said the real estate business appeals in part because it’s not a typical job in an office hierarchy. “You’re employed, but you’re an independent contractor,” Baker said. “You’re responsible for your own success.”

Belle Jessen had experience driving her own career before the pandemic.

She was a dancer in Southern California, working in commercials and other productions. That work evaporated in the pandemic, and she moved home to the Chicago area, eventually becoming a Compass agent based in Bucktown. Selling real estate in a fast-paced market, she said, is a lot like trying to make it as a dancer.

“It’s being available at the last minute for showings, like being available for last-minute casting in my old life,” she said, and “the way you find work in productions is really about who you know,” a fundamental part of selling homes.

Marc Kaufman felt similarly prepared for handling clients, from the focus on service and sales in the industry where he’d spent 30 years: hospitality, one of the employment sectors hit hardest by the pandemic shutdowns.

Kaufman didn’t get laid off, he said, because he was in catering management, but near the end of 2020 he switched to residential real estate.

“I work for myself,” said Kaufman, a Baird & Warner agent in the Gold Coast. “I have flexibility I never had,” and he expects to capitalize on that in coming years, as he approaches retirement age.

For some new agents, real estate was a fascination before it became their job.

Toledo, an agent with America Real Estate on the Southwest Side, had been intrigued with real estate since his teen years, and he turned to it after his job working in door-to-door sales for a national company vanished at the onset of the pandemic. By October 2021, he did his first deal: He found a three-bedroom home in Ashburn for clients who’d been looking to move with their baby out of a basement rental. That, said Toledo, made him “feel really good.”

Nate Mendes, now in his 50s, has been investing in real estate since he was a student at Loyola University and bought an income-producing three-flat in Wicker Park. Mendes has both an M.D. and an MBA in health care management and had worked for two decades as an academic physician at Robert Morris University when it merged into Roosevelt University, coincident with the dawn of the pandemic in March 2020.

The program he was in was going to shrink. Mendes went home to his partner and kids, “and my partner said, ‘You’ve always loved real estate. Why don’t you do that?’” In October, Mendes joined the North Michigan Avenue office of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Chicago.

Skills Mendes developed over years of working with students suit his new gig well, he said. “As a professor, you have to listen to your students, understand what their needs are and their insecurities,” Mendes said. Shepherding homebuyers through a housing market that’s low on inventory and high on demand is roughly the same thing, he said.




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