’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring—not even a real-estate agent eager to show off the granite countertops in the kitchen or the triangular Jacuzzi for two in the master bath. Instead, with home sales down more than 40 percent from the height of the market in 2006, agents have been departing the industry in large numbers. At the end of November, with roughly 57,100 members, the Illinois Association of Realtors (IAR) had experienced a 9.2 percent drop in membership since November 2007. “I expect it will be lower after the first of the year,” says the group’s president, Pat Callan of Realty Executives Premiere in Wheaton.

The decline has been even steeper at the Chicago Association of Realtors. According to David Hanna, the group’s president (and the managing director of Prudential SourceOne Realty), membership has dropped by about 25 percent, to fewer than 14,000, in the past two years. Like Callan, Hanna expects to see further decreases in 2009—and maybe sooner, what with dues expected from 500 to 600 members by the end of the year. “There are fewer and fewer people in my business who can say they’re still doing well when [others] have been down,” he says. “With a few exceptions, everyone’s income will be down for this year. More [Realtors] are going to have to make a decision about sticking around.”

Callan suspects that as many as half of the Realtors who have left this year were among those who had jumped into the business in the early years of this decade, when home sales were booming. According to the National Association of Realtors, the number of Realtors in Illinois grew by 9 to 13 percent a year from 2001 to 2004—just about paralleling the rise in home values in that golden era. “It was easier to sell houses then,” Callan says. “They’ve never seen a slow market, so they don’t know how to act in one.”