AS many as 1,500 employees, or about 10 per cent of the territory's 15,500 estate agents, may have left their jobs in the past few months, frustrated by the sharp slowdown in home sales, says Michael Choi Ngai-min, president of the Society of Hong Kong Real Estate Agents. The brunt of the downturn has been felt by small agencies operating with a handful of people, which tend not to have alternative surveying and consultancy income to fall back on. Industry leaders estimate that as much as seven per cent of small agencies are likely to close shop if the downturn in the market continues. Negotiators in larger high street chains, whose pay packets are typically commission-based, have also been getting disillusioned and giving up the business. Mr Choi, managing director of Land Power Agencies, and others, warned that unless the property market picked up steam next month after the Chinese New Year, there could be more defections. According to Land Registry statistics, sales and purchase agreements in the residential sector last year dropped from a high of 12,511 in March to a low of 4,668 in November. Many estate agents predicted that when the official sales transaction figures for December and January were released, they would reflect further slump. 'The last half of November and the whole of December were really bad months,' Mr Choi said. Employers said that because of the slowdown in the residential sales market, commissions had plummeted and employees were filtering out of the once lucrative industry. Companies looking to replace staff said they were finding it increasingly difficult to attract new people to the business. 'We're having a lot of problems in recruiting people,' said Shih Wing-ching, managing director of Centaline Agencies. 'Sales staff want to earn quick money and now they think they can't make any in this market,' he said. According to him, Centaline may be unique in that it is actually expanding at a time when the residential market is contracting. The company grew almost 50 per cent last year and had further expansion plans this year, he said. So its recruitment drive would appear to be doubly difficult. Most estate agents pay sales staff a basic salary of between $4,500 and $5,000 a month. It is in commissions that sales staff make a lot of money. Depending on the length of time a sales agent has been with an agency, he can make between 10 and 35 per cent on the overall typical two per cent commission charged on the sale of a property. For a good sales agent in good times, that can amount to thousands of dollars in commissions in a monthly pay packet - a far cry from the minimum take-home pay. With fewer transactions in the market, more sales staff are being reduced to the minimum salary. Sales quota figures are being revised simply because estate agents agree that not even their top sales staff can meet the existing quotas in a limp market. To date, medium-sized estate agencies said they were able to cope with the downturn in business and the loss in revenues. In some cases, business was so good during the first part of the year that they said they would be able to cope until times got better. In other cases, they also took in monthly rents which helped pay monthly costs such as salaries. Estate agents agree that the next couple of months are critical to the health of the agency business. Many have their fingers crossed that the coming Chinese New Year will provide the market with a much needed boost.