ST. LOUIS — The inspection for the Clayton condominium was days away and a closing for its sale had been scheduled.
This was going to be it, the start of Caleb Erpenbach's budding real estate career. Just 22, and only about a month into the profession, he was about to close his first home sale. It was momentous.
“Everything was good to go,” Erpenbach said.
But just days later, Erpenbach’s buyer discovered an issue during the condo's inspection. He asked for a concession, but the seller balked, opting to instead accept a backup offer from another prospective buyer.
The deal “fell flat on its face," said Erpenbach, and put him back on the difficult hunt for his first closed transaction since earning his real estate license and signing with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Select Properties at the start of April.
There has arguably never been a better time to sell a house in St. Louis. A seller's market has lifted homes to their highest value in more than two decades, with homes going under contract just days — and, often, hours — after hitting the market.
But a major driver of that market dynamic has been a historic low supply of available homes for sale. So while the market is great for sellers, it's become frustratingly competitive for the real estate agents left to scrap over the paucity of listings.
Further complicating the situation, Erpenbach is part of a rush of new agents joining the industry, many spurred by the promise of the hot market. The National Association of Realtors reports that more than 25,000 new agents joined its ranks in the first four months of 2021, putting it on pace to add about 20,000 more new members than it did in 2020.
At Cottleville-based 1st Choice Real Estate School, owner Michele Sloan-Mulford said the number of students signing up for real estate licensing classes is up tenfold over typical numbers.
“We are absolutely exploding right now,” she said. “That is expected when you have a boom market.”'
But those new agents are entering the housing market during a period in which not only rookie agents like Erpenbach, but also those with decades of experiences, are voicing frustration or encountering challenges caused by the record-low inventory and record-high prices. The dearth of new listings has created intense competition for securing seller clients. And those representing buyers often find themselves in bidding wars that often leave both the buyers, and agents like Erpenbach, on the losing end.
That dynamic is forcing local agents and St. Louis-based real estate agencies to adjust their operations, instituting new business models and strategies, and in at least one case merging with a larger firm with more resourcesto develop any edge they can to get.
But those changes aren't just about the deals at hand. They are also designed to prevent agent burnout, a concern shared by leaders at local real estate agencies.
“It’s probably one of the roughest years that you’re going to see in this business," said Kathy Helbig-Strick, founder of St. Louis-based Experience Realty Partners. "If you can make it in this business this year, you’re going to be a superstar."
The competitive market has forced Erpenbach to spend most of his time finding clients. He’s turning to his personal network, issuing mailers to potential prospects and mining clients from an apartment moving company he owns to create business. But he knows there likely won’t be a flood of business heading his way, at least for now. He'll have to fight for what he gets.
“It’s important to have a lot of grit, to be able to understand that you’re going to get way more no's than yes's," he said. "You have to be able to take the rejection and be able to keep pushing forward."
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