Defying the Odds, Woman Takes on New Career : Established as a school psychologist, Sharon Skill decided to gamble on self-employment in real estate.

A year ago, Santa Ana Unified School District psychologist Sharon Skill was wrestling with a dilemma: stay in a profession for which she had trained and invested 13 years, or chuck it all for the uncertainties of self-employment during a terrible recession?

No one accuses Skill of lacking common sense, but she chose to strike out on her own anyhow as--of all things--a real estate agent at a time hundreds of experienced agents are bailing out, property values are falling and home sales are sluggish at best.

Skill said she has no regrets.

The Huntington Beach resident bundled her psychology skills, academic research background and self-assurance into a package that, she said, has helped her persevere.

"I work closely with my clients," she said, "and my skills help me really listen to what they are saying so I can help them decide what they want and what will be best for them." In at least one case, she said, that meant counseling a Santa Ana couple against selling their condo right now.

Skill said she left her school district job because of the profound changes confronting the state's education system.

"Funding was being cut, our caseloads were increasing and I was working longer and longer hours for the same paycheck. I decided I wasn't getting enough out of the job to make up for the added stress," she said. "If I was going to have to work long hours with a lot of pressure, I thought I might as might as well do something where I could be more in control."

Why real estate in the middle of an economic slump?

"Well, I had done some real estate investing and had studied the field. . . . It was something I was familiar with," Skill said. She also believed her psychology training would help her in a profession where building interpersonal relationships is critical to success.

"And it seemed to be a career that provided a lot of advantages. It didn't take a lot of money to get started, it let me have a lot of control over what I do, and I get a lot of backup" from the agency that she signed on with, she said.

Her start-up costs totaled about $3,000, she said, including the cost of a cram course in real estate school before taking the license test; the state application and license fees, liability insurance for a year, membership in the Huntington Beach-Fountain Valley Board of Realtors and its multiple listing service; business cards, lock box keys, open house signs and marketing materials, such as flyers and note pads.

Support from First Team Real Estate in Costa Mesa, which has nine offices in Orange County, also has been critical. Skill said she gets additional training, office space, clerical support, leads and direct assistance from other agents.

On the down side, Skill said she has found that the hours are worse than when she was counseling troubled students. "'They are horrendous. You are like a doctor, on call 24 hours a day."

And despite the occasional story of a rookie realtor who bags $1 million in commissions in the first year, Skill has found that financial success takes time. "My goal was to double my income," she said, shaking her head. "That isn't as easy as I thought."

Skill declined to disclose her earnings, this year or last, but officials in the Santa Ana school district said top pay for a school psychologist, after 16 years, is $61,482--for the district's regular 194-day, 40-week work year. As a beginning realtor, Skill has concentrated on representing buyers.

The big commissions just aren't there for a beginner. Skill figures she will have been involved with more than $1.2 million in sales by the time her first year in the business ends in September, but in many cases her share of a deal is less than 1% of the sales price after the selling agent, First Team and the First Team agent she worked with all get their cuts.

However, Skill said she is in the business for the long run and realizes that it takes time to develop a reputation and a territory. To help that development, she has attended a variety of chamber of commerce meetings, business breakfasts and other gatherings where she can meet new people. Several listings and potential buyers have come from such meetings already, she said.

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