TALKING BUSINESS: Real estate school rebounds

The last time we checked in with Melissa Sprouse Browne, enrollment was down 80 percent at the Real Estate School of South Carolina that she co-owns with her husband, Chip.

Home sales were down nearly 21 percent in 2008 in the Midlands, according to the S.C. Realtors trade group. They're still down this year, but the decline is slowing. Sales dropped 28 percent in the first quarter and 14.5 percent in July, the latest month for which statistics are available.

As the economy is starting to see some signs of improvement, things have changed. Excerpts from a conversation with Browne:

Are people interested in pursuing real estate as a career again?

"Luckily, things have changed," she said, after nearly two years of decline.

The most recent class of first-time real estate agents, which wrapped up this month, had 23 students. That's a big improvement from some of the numbers she was seeing last year. "We've had classes of five, which really does not pay the bills."

In July, enrollment in her daytime class for new agents was 36. "Those are numbers we saw in 2005. We're very encouraged."

What is driving the rebound?

"People are starting to see the turn in the market," she said. And "it's still one of those careers that you can enter with a short amount of training and without a huge investment of money."

The state requires a 60-hour course, approval by the real estate commission and passing a state exam. To then get a license, graduates have to affiliate with a real estate company.

Fees include a $35 application fee to the state, a $63 fee to take the exam and the course fee. Sprouse-Browne normally charges $399 for the class, but has been running a special in recent months for $299.

How long do you think it will take Columbia to get back to a normal market?

"Another year. Looking at the pace of the recovery so far, I think it's going to take a while to get there," she said. Once the credit market stabilizes and people can have reasonable access to mortgage loans, the market will be well on its way, she said.

The biggest drawback is the state's unemployment rate, which is sixth highest in the nation, she said. Manufacturing and construction jobs, in particular, are down significantly. "There are a lot of people still out of work."

What is a normal market?

"Who knows what a normal market is?" During the height of the market in 2005-2007, nearly anyone could get a loan. Now, even creditworthy people with stable jobs are being asked to put down significant money. "It almost seems like the days of my parents" in the 1950s. "I don't think we need to get back to that." There needs to be a middle ground, she said.