Times may be hard for real estate agents.

But Judy Lowe, the state real estate commissioner, said the number of people holding state licenses really hasn't dropped off.

They may not be making money. In fact, Lowe said, a lot of them are probably just getting by with what they're making at jobs at Wal-Mart.

Lowe said, though, she understands why they wouldn't want to give up on their career. She said they're just born optimists.

Lowe, named to the post last year by Gov. Jan Brewer, said all signs would suggest otherwise.

"There are owners whose property has been devalued, where they owe more on a mortgage than they have value in their property," she said. "And there are buyers who are afraid to buy for fear that the market hasn't bottomed out yet."

Yet Lowe said the field is filled with people whose attitude might be considered one of hope over logic.

First it takes finding a client looking for a home.

"They take them out, they build a relationship, they show them an average of 52 properties before they finally find one that the buyer likes," Lowe said. Then there's the period of negotiation where the agent takes offers back and forth.

Then, when there is a meeting of the minds, the sale goes into escrow "and waits six weeks, pulling all of the strings of the escrow and the financing and the appraisal and everything, so it will close on a date specific in the contract."

And after all that, the sale can fall through if it turns out the lender concludes the borrower doesn't qualify.

"That licensee has to start that process all over again with a new buyer," Lowe said.

Add that situation to the current market of fewer buyers and almost no closing.

"And yet you're always wishing and hoping and optimistic that the next time the phone rings it's going to be a buyer ... or the next person you meet in the grocery store is going to be a seller," Lowe said. "It's a pretty positive personality that gets into this business."

Lowe knows something about that. She was a licensed real estate broker for years in Tucson before retiring.

"These cycles always come," Lowe said, adding she has experienced seven downturns during her years in the business.

"We know that this market is going to come back," she said. "We just have to be patient."

There are apparently a lot of patient people in the profession.

Her agency currently licenses 92,000 brokers and agents, though she said only about 60,000 of these can be considered active.

And even of those, she said "very few" are making a real living buying or selling real estate.

But Lowe said there has been no decline in the number of complaints her agency is handling.

One of the biggest categories comes not from disgruntled buyers or sellers but in the area of property management, where a real estate licensee represents the owner of the apartment complex and manages it. In that position the manager collects the rents and security deposits, money that's supposed to go into a trust account.

"We're seeing brokerages dipping into those trust accounts in order to hold their own doors open, stay in business," Lowe said. "They always think they're going to repay it. And every month they dip in a little more."

She said it's not unusual to find accounts that are overdrawn by more than $250,000, amounts Lowe said there is no way for the brokerage firm to repay.

Lowe said her agency normally learns of those problems when some tenant calls to say a check for a returned deposit has bounced.

Ideally, she said, it shouldn't be that way. But Lowe said the state's budget problems have taken a toll on her office, with the number of employees going from 72 when she started there to just 31 now.

The result, Lowe said, is she doesn't have the staffing to enforce all the laws and regulations on the books.

One of the things that doesn't get done, said Lowe, are "outreach audits." She said that would involve investigators going out, on a proactive basis, and checking to see that those trust accounts are not being tapped.

On a broader level, Lowe said consumer complaints against agents are not investigated as quickly as she would like.

On paper, that should not happen. The agency is self-funded and allowed to adjust its fees to cover its costs.

What happened, though, is state lawmakers, looking for some quick cash, "swept" some of the funds that had been collected in licensing fees. They also took money out of the recovery fund which is supposed to be set aside to reimburse people who were financially damaged by errant agents but cannot collect court judgments against them.

In the meantime, Lowe said she is trying to work with other agencies located in the same remote state office at 44th Street and Thomas Road in Phoenix to find ways of saving money, perhaps by consolidating staff and equipment.

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