Why should architects become real estate agents? That's the question three architects tackled in the completely packed September 15 breakout session, "Architects as Real Estate Agents."

Erik Lerner, AIA, LEED AP, a licensed real estate broker and architect working in greater Los Angeles, says it's an option every architect should seriously consider.

"What do you get if you get a real estate license?" he asked. "You get information" about housing "that was kept secret until very recently."

According to Lerner, there are more than 3 million licensed real estate agents working in the United States alone. "My question to you is, Why aren't you one of them?"

Lerner says architects can reap several benefits as a Realtor. For one, the real estate specifics found in the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) support the work architects do. "Say a client asks if the home addition you are about to do will pay for itself at resale. If you look at MLS statistics, you can answer that question". Architects also can find deals for themselves and their clients and may generate additional income from real estate commissions and referral fees. And then there's the one intangible: influence.

"Out of 100 houses, maybe 20 are designed by an architect. That means 80 homeowners are never in contact with an architect," Lerner said. "But 79 percent of all houses are purchased with the aid of a real estate agent or broker, and 85 percent are sold by an agent. This means the first person most consumers [engage] with is an agent. This is unacceptable. We can't leave this type of exposure to amateurs."

John Brown, RAIC, principal of housebrand in Calgary, Alberta, spoke of how a real estate license directly contributed to the success of his firm. "I took a different path," said Brown, residential architect's 2009 Rising Star Leadership Award winner. "The main interest in starting our practice was, How do we bring architectural services into the middle of the market? How do we make available an architectural experience for those people who thought they could never hire an architect but really wanted a nice place to live?"

Brown, who has been a broker for 15 years, says he realized early on that when people think they need a place to live, they don't hire an architect; they hire a real estate agent instead. "It feels pretty weird to be an agent, but all it is a license," he explained. "It gives you a license to do one thing: trade in real estate. And if you're able to conceive of your practice in a slightly different way, you can incorporate that ability into a really important, valuable, and economically viable alternative."

Jeremiah Eck, FAIA, a partner in Boston-based Eck McNeely Architects, has had a different experience—so far. "I'm new," Eck said, referring to his recent licensure. "My idea was simple: [I'd get my license], and I could refer people; I could take potential buyers to a home and tell them what it's all about, and maybe sell them the house. And I might get some work out of it."

But in Massachusetts, Eck discovered, the process is much more complicated than that. You have to be a licensed salesperson before you become a broker, and you have to hang your license as a salesperson in a broker's office. In addition, there are fees and other hurdles to overcome.

"I was so turned off about this, and I thought I was barking up the wrong tree," Eck said of his attempt to find an established broker with whom he could partner. "What I've found is that this [can be] a sleazy business. That's not to say that you can't break the mold, but the vast majority of these people don't care. All they care about is the referral and the clients. I'm still looking for a broker."

Still, Eck and the other panelists agreed that opportunities abound when architects become Realtors, "if we can break through this system," Eck said. "And that's what it is: a delivery system." As an agent, he added, "you'll be able to break through and find clients."