By Julie Satow

The New York Sun
April 24, 2004

Cherry Castellvi arrived at the Department of State Building on William Street at 4 a.m. and spent the next four hours shifting her weight from foot to foot while feverishly studying a real estate textbook.

Like the roughly 400 aspiring agents behind her, Ms. Castellvi joined what has become a weekly ritual, a snaking line around the downtown block to take a one-hour real estate sales exam.

The multiple-choice test, administered every Tuesday morning and afternoon, has become a right of passage to a multitude of New Yorkers looking to join the real estate craze. With more than 20,000 people taking the test annually in the city alone, the Department of State is so overwhelmed it is adding a third test to its roster beginning in July.

“It is a mob scene,” said Samantha Kleier Forbes, who took her exam earlier this year and now works as an agent at her family’s firm, Gumley Haft Kleier. “There is only one bathroom for 400 people and if you leave to use the bathroom during the test they won’t let you back in.”

“Hands down it is the most popular test we administer,” said the deputy secretary of state for business and licensing services, Keith Stack.
“We get upward of 400 people a week, and we’ve seen the numbers
continue to increase.”

Despite the headache of waking at dawn, waiting on an endless line, and enduring an exam, hundreds of hopeful agents do it. Investment bankers mix with college dropouts, new immigrants squeeze next to retirees, and everyone clasps frayed notebooks close to their chests periodically glancing down to check last-minute answers.

“I want to get into this business because there is more potential to earn big money,” said Ms. Castellvi, a diminutive 36-year-old physical therapist who left the Philippines for New York more than a decade ago. “I guess you could say I’m hoping for the American Dream.”

Alen Vidakovic, of Bayside, Queens, said he was a day trader at Merrill
Lynch earning $40,000 a month before getting caught in the World
Trade Center attacks.

“I broke my neck and jaw, lost 24 teeth, and had $600,000 worth of surgery,” the 28-year-old said, sitting on the sidewalk, study sheets spread around him. He said he escaped certain death by taking a cigarette break outside when he wasn’t supposed to.

Mr. Vikadovic was motivated when his fiancée “got sick of me moping
about” and got him to take a job with a commercial developer who requires employees to take the test.

Others waiting in line included Zaza Chicareli, a 33-year-old used-car salesman from California; Elizabeth Cambanaos, who spent 20 years selling wholesale Greek music CDs, and Roewna Rothman, a corporate banker for Citigroup who wanted a more flexible job after having a child.

Some in line were on a return visit. Graded pass/fail, the passing rate for the test is roughly 66%.

“I’m determined this time to pass,” said Celeste Browne, a 43-year-old who was taking the test for the second time. A cosmetologist for more than 20 years, she chose to change careers after getting injured.

Rosa Mercado was also going to take the test for the second time.
“When you get up at 3 a.m. and wait for hours in the cold, you can’t be expected to think right,” she said.

Anyone can take the real estate sales exam, but to become a licensed
agent a brokerage firm must sponsor you. It costs $40,000 to $60,000
to sponsor a new agent, including training and office infrastructure.
New agents are traditionally sponsored for one year and given a review
at the end of that period.

“With the average New York City costing $1 million, everyone thinks they will sell that apartment and make a ton of money,” said the head of residential sales at Heron, Corinne Pulitzer. “There is going to be a large fallout rate among agents” when those who are in it for the wrong reasons get weeded out, she said.

Other longtime real estate pros agreed.

“There is a lot of hype about real estate right now, and people think it is as simple as renting or selling one apartment and you’re done. But it isn’t true,” said Esther Muller, head of the Real Estate Academy and Esther Muller Consultants. “Just because the entrance into the industry is relatively easy doesn’t mean the business itself is easy.”

“It takes the same things to be successful in real estate as in any other business,” said the head of residential real estate at the Real Estate Board of New York, Eileen Spinola. “Creativity, self-discipline, and continuing education are the only ways to succeed.”