How has the real estate downturn affected agents and brokers?

There are fewer of them, for one thing. The Association of Real Estate License Law Officials shows the number of active real estate licensees has dropped to 850,000 from two million in 2008.

The decrease appears to be much lower than anticipated. Then again, as far back as 1997, industry experts started predicting a big shakeout of agents and brokers as the Internet made information more publicly available.

The National Association of Realtors had 1.1 million dues-paying members in 2009. In 1997, there were 695,000 members.

So why, with the real estate market in dire straits for at least three years now, did more agents and brokers not head for the doors?

Pragmatism.

"While there wasn't a mass exodus of people from the business, there were a lot of people who stayed in the business but acquired part-time jobs," said David Krieger, general manager of Coldwell Banker Preferred in Philadelphia.

Supplemental income allowed these agents to pay for the necessary courses to keep their licenses up-to-date and the fees for professional memberships.

Although, for many, business was off, "some effective and professional agents have had the best years of their career as homeowners needed their expertise to navigate the downturn in the market," Krieger said.

Experience becomes a bankable commodity when times are tough and the extra effort needed to sell a house is being provided.

"A few left," said Mike McCann of Prudential Fox & Roach, who has weathered a few other housing downturns - including the one in the late 1980s and early 1990s that saw Philadelphia prices fall 30 percent.

"Many had to learn what it was really like to sell real estate," said McCann, acknowledging that agent rolls expand when people in other businesses believe that houses are selling themselves.

"You become better at marketing," said Long & Foster Real Estate regional vice president Art Herling. "You use everything available to sell a house. You spend money on improving your website, but you also take advantage of traditional media, such as newspapers, or adding more directional signs or holding more than one open house.

"It is all about value," Herling said. "If you are putting all your effort into selling a house for a client, and the seller sees it, then the value of an agent's service is readily apparent."

A lot of agents are diversifying, according to a recent survey by the Realtors' association. Some residential agents are moving into commercial or brokering land deals, for example. Others have added relocation, residential property management, appraisal, or auctions to their portfolio.

"Some are working with investors and are developing a client base in addition to the primary-home buyers," Herling said.

And, despite the predictions of the late 1990s that the Internet would make real estate agents redundant, "more agents are finding additional ways of using it to make money," he said.

Still, there's no getting around the fact that, as home values have tumbled in many regions as much as 50 percent, incomes of many agents and brokers are suffering.

The median income of Realtors' group members fell 3 percent, to $35,700 last year, after a 14 percent decline in 2008. Members licensed as brokers earned a median of $49,100 in 2009, while sales agents earned $26,600.

Realtors in the business for two years or less earned a median of $8,800, while those in the business for 16 years or more earned $52,300.

"Many agents' income was cut in half," McCann said. "Some are just hanging on and are worried."

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. "On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.