Elizabeth Jumper's mother, sister, aunt and sister-in-law had each worked in the real estate industry, so when the longtime Bluffton resident abandoned her accounting job to become a full-time agent in January, she had an idea of what she was getting into.
"I knew about the economy, I knew about the short sales," Jumper said. "I'd followed the business long before I finally became a Realtor."
But by July, she was looking for another job in accounting, having determined that the costs associated with staying in real estate were too much to handle. Thousands of agents statewide have realized the same thing in the past five years.
According to the S.C. Real Estate Commission, the number of agents holding a "salesman license" -- the most common in the industry -- has dropped about 25 percent since 2007, when more than 24,202 held that certification. The number has declined each year since and is now at 18,348.
"I got out of it before I totally drained myself," Jumper said, citing what she felt were are "exorbitant fees" required for membership in various professional organizations.
For example, to access an online multiple listing source -- which allows brokers to pool and share information about local properties for sale -- agents pay a one-time fee of $325, followed by monthly payments of $70.
According to Karen Ryan, president of the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors, startup costs for agents average $1,500 to $2,500, depending on which firm they join.
And that doesn't take into account other costs associated with an agent's daily work, including advertising, insurance, gas and office materials.
When the housing market was booming, the business attracted a number of people -- teachers looking for income during the summer months, for example -- who obtained licenses but didn't realize that maintaining them might require a full-time commitment, Ryan said.
It's these agents, she suspects, who have been leaving the industry in recent years.
"Clients today are more educated than ever and are looking for an experienced, professional Realtor who can understand the nuances of things unique to our area," Ryan said.
"That, combined with the costs involved, is really driving out all of the part-timers from our business."
Jumper, who expects to return real estate, advises prospective agents to make sure they're financially prepared.
"You're going to put away a lot of money in this business before you make any," she said. "Anyone who says it's easy is wrong."
Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.