William McCarthy still remembers the tense month or so he spent checking the mail almost daily to see whether he passed the gruelling three-hour written real estate licensing exam he took at the University of British Columbia.
Nearly 30 years ago, the 27-year-old was working full-time managing property in Burnaby, but had dreams of setting up his own development firm and wanted the licence to sell land and gain access to residential housing data.
"That was a lot of nerve-racking pressure, but it should be, right?" says Mr. McCarthy, now a developer and realtor with a host of other professional designations, such as qualified arbitrator. "Because … if you make something easy, that doesn't necessarily produce the best results."
Aspiring realtors once needed to pass written assignments and attend in-person lectures before becoming eligible to write the exam. Now, one can complete the $1,150 licensing course's 20 online assignments in slightly less than three months before signing up for the multiple-choice exam and applying for a licence.
Realtors once had to commit to the field as a full-time job. Today, part-time agents can practise as long as they are licensed with an agency. Whereas an agent could once expect to benefit from the tutelage of a managing broker, now there are numerous megafirms where a single broker can oversee hundreds of agents, who must pay that brokerage a desk fee, a commission on their sales or both to "hang their licence."
The number of agents traditionally ebbs and flows with the strength of the housing market. As B.C.'s prices reach record highs, so too has the number of licensed agents, which stands at more than 22,500. There is now roughly one licensed realtor for every 205 British Columbians.
Those overseeing the licensing of realtors – UBC's business school and the Real Estate Council of B.C. – say new agents go through a rigorous process, including an applied practices course during the first weeks in their new profession.
But several high-profile real estate agents and industry insiders say making it harder to become a realtor and increasing the mentorship available to young agents is essential to improving the professionalism of a sector allowed to regulate itself in B.C.'s white-hot housing market. The concrete steps detailed by these agents could be echoed in next month's final report by an independent advisory panel reviewing the industry. This group was launched by the government earlier this year after a Globe and Mail investigation revealed dubious practices, such as shadow flipping, and the weak penalties for agents using such techniques.
Keith Roy, a Remax agent who has sat on the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver's professional-conduct committee for two years, says one of the biggest problems in his industry is that those seeking a licence get a test, not an education.
"Imagine if you could get a law degree for $1,100 and never show up in a classroom, except for an exam," Mr. Roy said. "You look at a personal-injury lawyer; they deal with cases ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 [in settlements.] "I deal with multimillion-dollar transactions every day."
Mr. Roy says he was able to pass his licensing exam in 2006 by poring over a database of 1,000 sample multiple-choice questions to ace the 100 that were somewhat rejigged and presented on the final test. Several Vancouver firms even offer prospective realtors pre-licensing courses where these questions are memorized, he says. (The multiple-choice exam format has been in place for at least 24 years.)
UBC has been administering the licensing course and exam since 1958, when a new law allowed the Real Estate Council of B.C. to delegate the education of realtors to this institution.
In 1997, UBC's Sauder School of Business had 1,497 students enrolled in its real estate licensing course. That number dipped into the hundreds for the next several years before gradually increasing to a record 5,194 students in the 2005 fiscal year. Enrolment went down in 2008 when the recession hit and the market cooled, but has increased steadily until 4,619 people enrolled in 2014-15.
The percentage of those who pass the course, by answering at least 65 out of 100 exam questions correctly, has gradually declined over the past decade from the low 70s to the low 60s.
David Moore, who has overseen the program for more than two decades, says it's difficult to draw specific conclusions as there are many factors that might contribute to the fluctuating pass rates.
"My understanding is that the [real estate] council is satisfied with the programs and they're well served by the programs we offer," he said.
Larry Buttress, who has been deputy executive officer at the council since 1998, said the regulator is looking forward to the independent advisory group's recommendations on reform due next month, but disagrees that it is too easy to become a realtor in B.C.
"The only way to really understand whether that is true is to go and take the course yourself," Mr. Buttress said. "I can guarantee you that you will get $1,000 worth of information that will be useful for the rest of your life."
Mr. McCarthy, a past-president of the Real Estate Institute of Canada, said aspiring realtors should be forced to take a mandatory two-year program, similar to the sales and marketing diploma at the B.C. Institute of Technology, before they can obtain a licence. (Quebec instituted a lengthier licensing program – 11 courses and 570 hours of total instruction – in 2010 and has seen the number of realtors shrink.)
Once the test is passed, aspiring realtors must take an applied course from the B.C. Real Estate Association that consists of a two-week online component and two days in a classroom setting.
After that, they must find a firm overseen by a managing broker in order to start buying and selling property.
In Metro Vancouver's frothy market, many brokerage firms boast agent rosters in the hundreds.
That's problematic because even the best managers can't provide proper oversight when overseeing hundreds of agents, according to Christopher Hughes, a long-time North Vancouver realtor who owns and runs a small agency with his wife.
"I'm not saying there's not managing brokers that can't do that, but the ones that can must have years and years of experience," said Mr. Hughes, who waited six years until applying to become licensed as a managing broker.
Mr. McCarthy says experienced managing brokers can handle anywhere from 50 to 125 agents effectively, but only at agencies with other licensed brokers to assist them and strict policies and protocols that keep standards high.
Under the existing rules, a managing broker is restricted from overseeing more than four branches of one agency, but has no limit on the number of realtors at these offices.
Mr. Roy says the real estate council should create a hard cap on the number of licensees a broker is allowed to supervise.
As well, he argues a mandated apprenticeship period for all new realtors would help everyone in an industry under intense scrutiny from the public and politicians.
"[Mentorship] gives new life to the senior agent's business and it gives a solid understanding to the new agents," he says. "The stakes are higher [in B.C.].
"We have the most expensive real estate in the country, we have arguably one of the most unaffordable cities in the world at the centre of our industry – we should raise the bar."