How practitioners seeking opportunities for professional growth can switch gears without taking a hit.
railway track switch

© Alfredo -

If you’ve been in real estate for a while, you may feel an itch to try something new. Targeting a different niche, expanding into another market, taking on an unfamiliar role at your company, and starting a brokerage are good ways to shake complacency, challenge yourself, and learn new skills. “Real estate professionals should always be looking at other opportunities in the industry to make themselves more well-rounded,” says Milford, Conn.–based real estate coach Jared James, who left sales in 2008 to pursue a career in training and education. “But you have to choose the right time to make a change.”

How do you know when you’re ready? The best time to focus on a new endeavor is when your pipeline is full and you have reliable systems in place, such as a CRM that can automate follow-up contacts. These measures will “keep your business from falling apart while you place your attention elsewhere,” says James, who was leading a sales team with more than $250 million in annual volume when he became a full-time coach. “I was rocking it; I didn’t get into coaching because I needed to do something else. It was my calling. Most people look for the next stream of revenue because their current one isn’t cutting it, but it’s never a great idea to make decisions about your future based on your current circumstances.”

There also are certain universal real estate skills you would be wise to master before switching gears. Marki Lemons Ryhal, ABR, CRS, a Chicago-based agent turned social media coach, says business planning and marketing know-how are essential to any real estate–related job. “Real estate education is as much about sales as real estate sales is,” she says. “I’m in front of association executives—and those people often turn over every year—and I have to sell myself to them, just as I would a buyer or seller.”

Whatever shift you may want to make in your career, Lemons Ryhal and other practitioners who have changed course offer guidance for a smooth transition. Their challenges and successes can help you pave your own path forward.

Marki Lemons Ryhal, ABR, CRS

© Courtesy of Marki Lemons Ryhal

A Teachable Moment

Marki Lemons Ryhal was among the earliest adopters of social media in real estate. Facebook, which had just launched nationally, was a platform she leveraged in her first year as an agent in 2004; she closed $12 million in annual volume. By 2006, Twitter was born, and Lemons Ryhal could see the deeper impact social media would have on real estate marketing.

But it was a statistic about home buyers in 2006 that convinced her to become a licensed real estate instructor. That year, the National Association of REALTORS®’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers showed that the share of buyers who used the internet in their property search had grown from 2% to 80% during the prior decade. (The number was 95% in 2018.) “It was proof that agents needed to have a strong online presence, and I knew I could guide them,” Lemons Ryhal says.

With few coaches addressing social media’s value, Lemons Ryhal became a continuing education instructor in Illinois and Indiana and began a side gig teaching agents how to use social platforms to drive sales. She didn’t decide on a whim. “Every shift I’ve made in my business has followed numbers,” she says. “I don’t do things based on a gut feeling.”

In 2013, even as her annual sales volume was climbing, Lemons Ryhal—moved by both passion and market dynamics—stopped selling real estate, created a business plan, and became a full-time coach. She had learned as an agent that the more focused she was on a particular niche, the less competition she faced. So, as an instructor, she continued focusing on social media and technology. “In order to get new market share, I had to step out on a limb and learn new things,” she says, adding that she’s laser-focused on agents who have learned social media tools but need help maintaining their knowledge as the tools evolve. “The more niche you become, the more money you make with fewer headaches.”

Lemons Ryhal now trains agents across the country and leads an exclusive mentor group with 16 students. She encourages other real estate pros to consider what skills they need to develop in their current roles that may be helpful going forward. Effective database management and email marketing, for example, are skills every practitioner needs. “Everybody wants to take home the most amount of money, regardless of whether they have the skills,” Lemons Ryhal says. “But the skills, not the money, support your ‘why’ for making a career shift.”

Aaron Binik-Thomas

© RJ Rice Photography

Blending Investment, Residential Strategies

Still, money is certainly  a motivating factor when mulling your next career move. Aaron Binik-Thomas, a sales associate with Keller Williams Advisors in Cincinnati, earned only $11,000 in 2013, his first year as an agent, working exclusively with multifamily investors. He had transitioned into real estate after working in the acquisitions department for a local investment firm, but seeing greater opportunities in residential, he began targeting first-time buyers in 2014.

Like Lemons Ryhal, Binik-Thomas says he tried to focus on the skills he’d need to succeed rather than the money. “Real estate investments are much more transactional than emotional, and I was operating as a very transactional agent,” he says. “My investment training told me that investors are only looking for a good deal, and that’s how I thought all clients would be. When I realized real estate is a relationship game—and I needed to work on building those relationships genuinely—things really took off for me.”

Binik-Thomas says he had more chances with first-time buyers to practice handling client objections, guiding customers through paperwork, and calming emotional turmoil during transactions. “I went from being an analyst to being an adviser,” he says. “I learned that while no two people have the exact same goal, everyone has the same type of goal: to better their circumstances.”

Having gained confidence in his ability to connect with clients, Binik-Thomas slowly began working with investors again in 2017 while continuing to serve first-time buyers. His wider skill set benefitted all of his clients. “Understanding the investment side lets me help residential clients evaluate multiple opportunities, rather than the one house they think they can’t live without,” he says. “And for investors, I can help them think more about their end goal, rather than one investment at a time.”

This strategy helped Binik-Thomas not only grow his sales volume from $5 million in 2013 to nearly $24 million in 2018 but also sell the largest investment portfolio on record in Cincinnati in June 2018. He worked with a private investor to unload 270 properties, consisting of single-family homes and apartment buildings, for $19.1 million. Initially, the investor was looking for property management services. But after Binik-Thomas helped map out her long-term goals, the investor decided selling was more in her interest. “Yes, I’m in business to make money—but I do that by protecting my clients’ best interests,” Binik-Thomas says. “I’ve learned that everyone needs that, whether they’re investors or traditional buyers. So, I don’t approach investors and residential clients differently anymore, and it works for me.”

Scott Parkin, GRI

© Jessiena Lake Photography

New Tricks in a Traditional Market

Individual agents may be able to change niches nimbly, but for an entire brokerage, the process can be more complex. Broker-owners who want to shift their firm’s focus often must provide additional training to agents, adopt new policies, and rethink company culture. Scott Parkin, GRI, broker-owner of Verve Realty in Minneapolis, contended with these challenges when a sharp downturn in the local construction market in 2013 forced him and his 12 agents to abandon their new-condo specialty.

Before the bust, Parkin positioned his brokerage, which he launched in 2011, to focus almost exclusively on new luxury condos. But as new-home sales began to vanish, Parkin’s company waded into the resale market for the first time. “When I would visit friends in the suburbs, I picked up on the vagaries of the resale market,” Parkin says. “But it’s a different thing entirely to understand the challenges that come with inspections on older homes and other issues that don’t affect new construction.”

Parkin realized that he would need to alter the training he gave his agents. Typically, they would do informal role-playing to practice sales scripts and other scenarios but now needed more professional coaching on specific items related to the resale market, including certain disclosure documents and guiding clients through renovations. Parkin consulted with real estate instructors to develop checklists for radon and other items that his agents had never used before.

The shift was also a lesson in humility for him and his agents, who had grown accustomed to their status as go-to experts in the condo market. Suddenly, they were learning from their competitors how to do business in the resale market instead of leading the pack in new construction. “When you’re in a certain market where you’ve sold a lot like we did, people learn to come to you, and you don’t have to promote yourself as much,” Parkin says. “But in a volatile market with a lot of competition, we learned to act more quickly because we’re no longer at the top.”

After forging a new path in resale, Parkin’s brokerage never returned to listing new homes, even as homebuilding stabilized. He says he and his agents can market resale homes more creatively. “Builders want their agents to be obedient, and there’s not a lot of room for expression in marketing,” he says. “Traditional buyers and sellers are usually more open to the process.”