Realtor vs. real estate agent—what’s the difference?

man waiting at the gate

A realtor and real estate agent are both trained to do similar things—so what sets them apart? Here’s what makes them different.

If you’re buying or selling a home, you may use the terms realtor and real estate agent interchangeably. Well, they’re similar but not exactly the same thing. Prospective homebuyers are often surprised to know that a realtor and a real estate agent are two separate titles, each with its own list of qualifications. 

A realtor belongs to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), while a real estate agent does not. As a member of the NAR, realtors must obtain additional certification and adhere to a code of ethics. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that realtors are better than agents. Many agents never go through the trouble of becoming realtors and still operate successful businesses that are honest, helpful, and tailored to their clients’ needs. 

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Key takeaways

  • Realtors belong to the National Association of Realtors 
  • Real estate agents and realtors both help buyers and sellers with various real estate transactions
  • Brokers are real estate agents that receive a specific license to form a brokerage and hire other agents to work for them 
  • Not all real estate agents become brokers
  • Not all real estate agents become Realtors

Realtor vs. agent: What’s the difference?

Becoming a real estate agent is a necessary step before becoming a Realtor. Realtors perform the same tasks as real estate agents but must abide by a code of ethics to maintain their membership in the National Association of Realtors. Real estate agents have a professional license to help people buy, sell, and rent real estate. Each title requires a different set of certifications. 

What does it take to become a realtor?

The National Association of Realtors is the largest trade association in the US. As such, many agents aspire to be a part of the NAR at some point in their careers. Agents aren’t the only real estate professionals capable of joining the NAR. Membership is open to a variety of players in the real estate industry, such as brokers, appraisers, and property managers. 

Anyone who wants to become a member of the National Association of Realtors must meet the following requirements:

  • Be active in the real estate business
  • Have a valid real estate license
  • Be free of any official sanctions involving unprofessional conduct
  • Be free of any recent or pending bankruptcy claims

If all requirements are met, the next step would be to submit an application to one of the NAR’s local real estate associations and pay a one-time application fee. Once accepted, realtors are required to pay annual membership dues to keep their realtor status active. They must also adhere to the NAR’s strict Code of Ethics. 

The NAR Code of Ethics comprises 17 articles explaining the standards of practice that should be observed when dealing with potential or existing clients, other realtors, and the general public.

Real estate agent
Realtors are real estate agents that become members of the National Association of Realtors

What does it take to become a real estate agent?

Real estate agents hold a professional license to help people buy, sell, and rent real estate. As agents, they’re required to work under a sponsoring broker or brokerage firm. Agents are also referred to as real estate associates and real estate salespeople. 

Each state has different requirements for becoming a real estate agent. However, most states generally require real estate agents to:

  • Be 18 years old or older
  • Legally reside in the U.S.
  • Complete a background check
  • Complete a required pre-licensing class 
  • Pass a real estate licensing exam
  • Be sponsored by a licensed real estate broker
  • Maintain their license through continued education 

Understanding the different types of real estate agents

All agents should know how to negotiate terms of sale and file necessary documents. However, the real estate agent you should hire will depend on your needed services. Before deciding to work with a real estate agent, understand the different kinds of services each agent provides. 

Listing agents represent sellers. Seller agents help their clients set listing prices and suggest home updates to increase home value. They also help sellers stage and list their homes on the MLS, Zillow, and other real estate platforms. 

Buyer’s agents represent buyers. Buyer agents help their clients find properties that match their criteria and fall within their price range. They also help arrange home appraisals and inspections. A good buyer’s agent will guide first-time homebuyers through the buying process from start to finish. 

Rental agents manage rental properties. These types of agents handle a variety of property management tasks. They may help landlords secure ideal tenants, provide services to tenants, and manage leasing arrangements.

What’s a broker?

Like realtors, brokers are real estate agents who have completed additional training and licensing. However, brokers are different in that their licenses allow them to work independently and hire real estate agents to work under them.

Brokers perform many of the tasks realtors and real estate agents do. On the buying side, brokers work with buyers to identify ideal properties, negotiate terms and sales prices, and help clients resolve all issues leading up to closing. 

On the selling side, brokers determine market values of client properties, list and show properties to potential buyers, and help sellers sort through offers.

There are three main tiers of real estate brokers, each with a different degree of responsibility: 

Associate brokers have obtained their broker licenses but, for one reason or another, choose to work under another broker. They may want to gain some experience before opening their own brokerage. 

Managing brokers are responsible for hiring agents, training new hires, and managing administrative staff. They handle a variety of daily transactions and operations at a brokerage. 

Principal or designated brokers supervise agents and make sure they’re working in compliance with state and national real estate laws. Each real estate office has at least one designated broker responsible for all agents working under them. 

Are all realtors agents?

All realtors, at some point, were agents. Most states require agents to work for an established brokerage for at least two years to become a realtor. As far as skills and responsibilities go, realtors and real estate agents are the same. Both professionals assist clients in the buying and selling of property. 

What’s the difference between a realtor and a real estate agent?

The key difference is the license required to hold each title. A real estate agent can buy and sell a property without being a realtor. However, a real estate agent cannot be a realtor without joining the NAR. 

About the author: Vivian Tejada is a freelance writer and small business strategist based out of Providence, RI. She writes SEO blogs, articles, and neighborhood guides for a variety of real estate companies. She’s also an avid traveler, location-independent, and enjoys trying out new restaurants.

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