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BROKERS, the ELITE TROOPS: A Tale of Success

January 31, 1988|Nina J. Easton

REAL ESTATE was not Joyce Rey's calling. Maybe teaching. Or even politics, her first love. But never real estate. So how did she end up becoming one of the most successful residential real-estate agents in Los Angeles, and co-founder of the elite Rodeo Realty, a division of Merrill Lynch Realty? "It looked easy," she says. "Oh, and I loved going out house-hunting. That was fun."

Rey quickly discovered it wasn't so simple: She made $4,000 in her first year in the real estate business. And while some aspects of selling houses can be fun, the cut-throat competition among agents and lack of loyalty from buyers can be excruciating. At first, Rey's managers complained that she cried too much. "But," she insists, "it was very upsetting when I'd show someone 50 houses and they'd walk in and buy from someone else. It's a very rough business."

Rey says her skin has thickened since then, and clearly she's learned her way through the business during the past 13 years. Last year, she closed $51.6 million in sales, pushing her income into the high six figures and topping her 1986 record by 18%.

In the most chic Westside neighborhoods, six-figure incomes are not unusual for those who have broken into this crowded and elite circle and survived the stiff competition. Typically, real estate agents on both sides of the deal split a 6% commission when a home is sold. That share--say, 3% of the sale price--is then split again with the agent's company, leaving the agent with somewhere between 1.5% and 2.5% of the sale price depending on the company's policies.

The high home prices on the Westside have boosted the incomes of many agents and brokers there well above the national average. According to a 1986 survey by the National Assn. of Realtors, the median income for a broker (who is licensed to supervise agents) is $35,000; about 11% of all brokers make more than $100,000. Sales agents make much less money. The median income for agents is $19,000, and nearly half make less than $20,000 a year. Only 14% make more than $50,000.

Rey has come a long way from the days when she taught business-law classes at Dorsey High School in Baldwin Hills for $610 a month and sometimes ate one meal a day to make ends meet. She worked as a flight attendant during the summers and holidays, and on a flight to Acapulco one Thanksgiving, she met Alejandro Rey, the TV star who then played the irascible nightclub owner Carlos Ramirez on "The Flying Nun." The two were soon married. (They were divorced about seven years ago; Alejandro Rey died of cancer last year.)

With that marriage, Joyce Rey was suddenly traveling in elite Hollywood circles. While those connections eventually would boost her business, intially she was on her own. "When you first start out in the business, people you know won't necessarily use you--because you don't have any experience," Rey says.

At first, she sold homes in her spare time, pleased that she made a little money. It was when she began relying on the business as full-time employment, and income, that she realized how frustrating selling real estate could be. That was in 1974, when interest rates had ticked up and the residential market was soft.

The following year, though, business began to snowball. Clients who didn't buy a house from Rey were impressed enough to refer friends to her. In 1976, she sold Sonny and Cher's Holmby Hills house to a prominent businessman for $1.2 million. She sold the house again in 1978--for $4.2 million, which was double the highest price that anyone had ever paid for a Los Angeles home. Later, Rey competed against the top sales agents in the area for the listing on the Pickfair estate, the mansion that Douglas Fairbanks built for Mary Pickford. Rey appeared before the estate lawyers dressed in her most conservative burgundy suit and feeling more than a little nervous. But she was also well-versed in the details of the property, and her marketing plan--which included a brochure that looked like an invitation to a royal event--cinched her the deal. Lakers owner Jerry Buss bought the property in 1980 for $5.3 million (Pia Zadora is now buying it).

With the sales of the Sonny and Cher house, Rey had made her mark on the Westside, and Harleigh Sandler, who then owned his own real-estate firm, asked her to start Rodeo Realty, a division that would handle only estate properties with price tags of more than $1 million. In 1982, Merrill Lynch bought out Harleigh Sandler, and Rodeo Realty, where Rey has continued as general manager.

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