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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tom Kelly: Memories of real estate’s dark ages

Tom Kelly

More than 35 years ago we bought our first home – a tiny house with a big-time view – for $37,500.

We scrimped, saved and sweated ways to find the down payment – some of it coming from the day-to-day grocery money and what remained of the “fun fund.” I knew, however, that view property tended to appreciate and few homes could touch this home’s jaw-dropping vistas.

Things got so desperate that I even contemplated asking my boss for an advance on my $309 weekly salary. Sure, we could have rented until the coast was clearer, but I felt a view like this did not come around every day.

A week before closing, we were still short $640. I borrowed that sum from our credit union on a high-rate “signature” loan that also carried a stringent pay-back schedule.

The performance of the real estate agent heightened the tension. She had no license, no formal training, was a close friend of the seller and had an “exclusive” listing that allegedly prohibited anyone else from selling the property. And she didn’t care about our interests and schedules. I was furious, but really loved the house.

“I’m your agent, too,” she said. Really? Then why didn’t you tell us about the rotten deck your husband, a local fix-up guy, refused to repair?

I thought about that feeling recently when a friend of mine mentioned she had signed up for more “clock hours” of instruction through the National Association of Realtors continuing education program. It was part of a requirement in order for her to renew her license. First-time agents now must show proof that they have completed a real-estate fundamentals course. Office managers are required to take business management courses.

When we bought that first home, agents in our state were not required to obtain a license before listing and selling residential property. There was a six-month “grace period” that enabled a person to sell property for a broker while supposedly studying to pass the sales agent’s exam.

Many would-be agents passed the test and obtained a license. Others dropped out or failed the exam, but easily pocketed commissions for the interim period.

I found this absolutely baffling. Here was the largest financial decision I had ever made and somebody with no required training was in the middle of it? And, this practice was acceptable to the housing industry and the state?

I decided to see exactly what it took to become a licensed real estate sales agent. I quickly discovered the requirements were not terribly stringent – pass a test. No instruction was required, for example, on how to fill out a Purchase and Sale Agreement.

I picked up some Department of Licensing books from the library to prepare for the test. I understood from an acquaintance that a high percentage of those taking a private pre-license course passed the exam. The class was held two days a week for six weeks and fit perfectly with my schedule on the night sports desk. I enrolled and wasn’t surprised to find that old exams made up most of the curriculum.

By test day I felt very comfortable with all the questions asked on the two-part exam. A few weeks later, I was notified by mail that I had passed. The next step was to pay the fee ($25) and a license was on the way.

I felt neither a great sense of accomplishment nor the utmost confidence that I was ready to perform the tasks my license permitted me to perform. My license remained on inactive status for more than two decades until I missed the deadline to pay the annual renewal fee. In order to reinstate the license, I had to enroll in a 30-hour class. While I enjoyed the newsletters, I didn’t need the license, as I never planned to sell real estate for a living.

Talk about living in the dark ages. It wasn’t until 1985 that a 30-hour course was required before a potential licensee could take the exam. Since then, the state has made great strides in promoting education and policing of real estate salespersons.

If the education and disclosure requirements had been in place when we bought our first home, perhaps “our” agent would have performed differently.

Tom Kelly has been a professional journalist for 36 years. He served the Seattle Times for 20 years, many as real estate editor.
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