It’s time to buy or sell a house. You jump online to find a representative who can help you navigate the world of real estate. Some identify as a real estate agent, others are Realtors. (And yes, that’s capitalized. More on that in a moment.) Both list houses for sale and guide buyers through the acquisition process.
Unfortunately, those home-buying catalogs and online listings don’t explain the difference between the two job titles, or the reasons you might want to opt for one over the other. If you’re in the market for a new home, here’s an easy way to understand these two major categories of real estate experts.
A real estate agent is an individual who has been granted a state license to conduct business relating to the purchase, sale, or rental of property. That license is given after the person completes a training course, but the content and duration of that education can vary widely by state. California, for example, requires 135 hours of training, over double that of Virginia (which mandates 60 hours). After passing a written test on both federal and state real estate laws and principles, applicants become licensed to practice as an agent. As of 2018, there were roughly 2 million agents in the United States helping to close deals on 5.34 million existing homes being sold.
A Realtor is a real estate agent of a different stripe. The trademarked term belongs to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), a trade organization founded in 1908. It indicates an agent who has become a member of that organization, has received ethics training, and has agreed to be bound by the group’s code of ethics. Put simply, the code mandates that Realtors perform their duties while putting their client’s interest above their own and avoid exaggeration when describing property characteristics, among other pledges.
“Every Realtor adheres to a strict code of ethics based on professionalism, consumer protection, and the golden rule,” Mantill Williams, vice president of public relations and communication strategy for NAR, tells Mental Floss. “NAR’s Code of Ethics, adopted in 1913, was one of the first codifications of ethical duties adopted by any business group. By becoming a member, you agree to uphold and are held accountable to this code of ethics, which includes obligations to clients, the public, and fellow Realtors.
“For example: When representing a buyer, seller, landlord, tenant, or other client as an agent, Realtors pledge themselves to protect and promote the interests of their client. This obligation to the client is primary, but it does not relieve Realtors of their obligation to treat all parties honestly.”
As of July 2019, there were approximately 1.4 million Realtors practicing in the United States and paying the $150 in dues to NAR annually. While nearly two-thirds are also real estate agents, some are brokers, who took a broker’s license exam after completing training on topics relating to legal issues, taxes, and insurance. Brokers typically need to have been working as a real estate agent for three years before obtaining a broker’s license. One can, of course, be a broker without being a Realtor.
So what does all this mean for you, the consumer? Real estate agents who become Realtors might swear by a Code of Ethics, but is it enforceable? If NAR receives complaints that a member is misrepresenting listings, the violation could lead to their dismissal from the group. An agent, meanwhile, might lose their license only if a crime has been committed. Naturally, any sales agent can perform their duties ethically, but a Realtor is likely to face more accountability—and the consumer more avenues for complaint—if a sale is handled improperly.
Does that mean all Realtors are automatically superior to agents? Not necessarily. Some agents may have more experience than a Realtor or might specialize in one area that fits your needs, like commercial real estate. When choosing a real estate professional, it's a good idea to get recommendations from friends and associates. You can also search for Realtors who have a focus on special consumer groups like military personnel.
While Realtors have a high rate of customer satisfaction—90 percent of homebuyers would recommend their Realtor, according to NAR—it’s best to take time and make a careful choice. Buying a home, after all, is the most expensive thing any of us are ever likely to do.
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