Do real-estate agents really have it that bad? (© Cultura/Corbis)

© Cultura/Corbis

To those not in the field, real-estate agents may appear to have easy jobs. They ride around showing fabulous houses, work a flexible schedule and sometimes land big commission checks. (Bing: How does the commission system work in real estate?)

But the reality is that real-estate agents have a much harder job than we can imagine. Uncertainty about their income, a lack of benefits, a decline in housing values and the risks associated with meeting strangers in vacant homes can make real estate a stressful and dangerous occupation.

High-stress environment
For starters, working strictly on commissions is stressful. Paul Wyman, owner of the Wyman Group real-estate firm in Howard County, Ind., and a regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors, says agents don't have a guaranteed paycheck. Most don't earn a dime until a sale closes. A lot of money can be riding on each transaction, he says.

"You end up counting on a deal, and if it falls apart for any reason, it can cause a lot of stress for the family," Wyman says.

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Brad Knapp, senior vice president of Henkle Schueler Realtors in Lebanon, Ohio, says that whether they're working independently or for a large firm, agents often act as their own small business. While that can have some perks, it often has downsides such as a lack of health insurance, sick time or paid vacation. For most agents, a lot is riding on every sale, he says.

The job is so stressful, in fact, that Business Insider reported that "real-estate sellers are 1.38 times more likely to commit suicide than average."

Home prices versus commissions
Further, the annual median income for National Association of Realtors members has trended down in recent years, falling from $52,200 in 2002 to $34,100 in 2010, the NAR says. However, the NAR did report that the median income for Realtors increased $800 from 2010 to 2011.

Agent commissions vary by region and firm, but typically average 5% to 6% nationwide, according to the NAR. A typical agent may sell only a half-dozen properties per year.

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"I don't think the general public appreciates the fact that real-estate agents will show so many homes and do so much work but don't get paid until they're at the closing table," Knapp says.

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Stresses are worsened by a down market
Agents have been hit especially hard by the recent housing downturn. Because commissions are based on a percentage of the sale price, commissions decline when home prices decline. According to the latest numbers from the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, home prices have fallen approximately 34% from their 2006 peak.

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The rapidly changing real-estate market can also create a disconnect between an agent and a buyer or seller, Wyman says. Many sellers have unrealistically high expectations when it comes to the price they can get for their home. Wyman says agents today have to spend more time educating sellers about the real value of their home.

"There are sellers out there that think their house is the exception, and buyers have been conditioned to give lowball offers," Wyman says. "It's a challenging market and can cause real stress."

Furthermore, Wyman says that because many agents have their own real-estate investments, either in flips or rental properties, the downturn has been especially hard.

In past years, real-estate agents have entered and exited the profession as the housing market fluctuates. But in the past few years, Wyman says the housing market has fallen faster than agents are leaving the industry.

"There has been increased competition because there are just more [real-estate agents] and fewer sales," Wyman says.

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Job can have dangers
In addition to being stressful, working in real estate can be dangerous. Agents often must meet strangers alone in vacant houses and show properties in all types of neighborhoods.

Criminals have posed as would-be buyers to lure unsuspecting agents into vacant homes and have committed theft, robbery, assault and rape. Some agents have even been murdered. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63 people employed in real-estate-related fields — this includes property-management and maintenance personnel — died on the job in 2010. Of those deaths, 23 were murders.

Safety has become such an important issue in recent years that the NAR has created tips and guidelines to help agents stay safe. The 2011 Realtor Safety Report examined a year's worth of attacks on agents, and a safety program features a five-step plan for agents to stay safe while conducting open houses.

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While the chance of being victimized is relatively small, it can add an element of stress every time an agent meets with a new potential buyer. "You have to constantly be aware of the potential for danger," Knapp says. "There's an added element of stress and potential danger when they get a call to meet someone at a vacant house in a questionable neighborhood."