What Is a Realtor?

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By Josiah Wilmoth Updated March 30, 2023


Realtor vs. agent | Realtor vs. broker | Do I need a Realtor? | Become a Realtor | FAQ

Realtor definition

Technically speaking, a Realtor (or REALTOR®) is a member of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), an industry trade group for agents, brokers, appraisers, and other real estate professionals.

However, it's common for people to use "realtor" — with a lowercase "R" — as a generic term for any real estate agent. In this context, "realtor" refers to a person licensed to help consumers buy, sell, and rent homes. It's like using the term "band-aid" instead of "adhesive bandage," even when you're not talking about the official Band-Aid brand.

In the rest of this article, we'll use "Realtor" only when referring to a member of NAR.

» LEARN: How to become a Realtor

Realtor vs. real estate agent

While the title "Realtor" is reserved for NAR members, the term "real estate agent" can refer to anyone licensed to help arrange real estate transactions — whether they're a member of NAR or not.

To become a real estate agent, a person must obtain the appropriate license from their state. In most states, the entry-level real estate license is called a "salesperson" license, and it authorizes licensees to act on behalf of a broker in real estate transactions.

Agents with a salesperson license are typically required to:

  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Complete around 40-100 classroom hours of real estate education
  • Pass a state licensing exam
  • Work under the supervision of a licensed broker
  • Complete regular post-licensing education to maintain their license

A new agent becomes eligible to join NAR (and officially become a Realtor!) once they've received their license and joined a brokerage managed by another Realtor. They usually join a local Realtor association, which grants them reciprocal membership in both their state Realtor association and NAR.

An agent doesn't need to become a Realtor to practice real estate, but most do. Of the estimated 2 million active real estate licensees in the U.S., more than 1.4 million are also Realtors.

Joining a Realtor association often gives agents tools not available to non-Realtors. In many areas, membership unlocks access to the local multiple listing service (MLS), a private database of homes for sale. Other resources include professional development and networking opportunities, plus the freedom to call themselves Realtors without violating NAR's trademark.

However, there are reasons why an agent might not become a Realtor.

Why some agents don't become Realtors

The most common reason real estate agents say they choose not to become Realtors is that they can subscribe to the local MLS without joining a Realtor association.

Why do agents need MLS access?

An MLS is a privately run database that maintains up-to-date information about local homes for sale. Eighty-seven percent of agents post for-sale listings on the MLS, making it the most common way agents market properties. Consequently, agents who can't use the MLS are at a huge disadvantage compared to their competitors.

There are hundreds of these databases across the U.S. Most are owned by local Realtor associations. Many MLS operators let only Realtors access the MLS, while others let any licensed agent subscribe.

Other agents don't become Realtors because they work for a broker who isn't a NAR member. According to the trade group's guidelines, a brokerage's principal member must join the organization before any agents under their supervision are eligible for membership. So, if an agent joins a brokerage that isn't affiliated with a Realtor association, they won't be able to join NAR either.

Finally, an agent might eschew NAR membership because they consider it too expensive. Becoming a Realtor typically requires someone to join three different Realtor associations: one each at the local, state, and national level. Those dues can add up to $1,000 or more annually, which is a hefty cost for new licensees, part-timers, and other agents who aren't closing many deals.

Realtor vs. broker

A real estate broker is an experienced agent who is licensed to arrange real estate transactions, with or without supervision. As with any agent, an individual broker is a Realtor only if they're also a member of NAR.

Brokers typically begin their careers as salespeople before "upgrading" to a broker license that authorizes them to:

  • Supervise other agents
  • Operate independently
  • Manage a brokerage or start their own firm

Editor's Note

A handful of state real estate commissions designate all licensed agents as brokers. In these places, an entry-level broker is roughly equivalent to what other states would designate as a salesperson, in terms of both pre-licensing requirements and their day-to-day job description.

Although technically called "brokers," these agents must still accrue several years of experience and complete additional education before they're eligible to supervise other agents, open their own brokerage, or perform other duties typically reserved for brokers in other states.

It's more difficult to become a broker than a salesperson. State-level licensing requirements typically require applicants to:

  • Have multiple years of experience as a licensed salesperson
  • Complete additional training
  • Pass a comprehensive licensing exam
  • Complete regular post-licensing education to maintain their license

» MORE: What Is a Real Estate Broker?

Does it matter if my agent is a Realtor?

There isn't a simple yes or no answer to this question. There are some cases when it could matter a lot whether an agent is a Realtor. In others, it's something to consider — but it shouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker.

Questions to ask an agent who's not a Realtor

You can determine how relevant an agent's lack of Realtor association membership is to your situation by asking them a few basic questions:

  • Why aren't you a member of a Realtor association?
  • Have you ever been denied membership or had your status revoked?
  • Do you have MLS access?
  • If you don't have MLS access, how do you plan to market my home or help me find a property to buy?

As long as the agent provides satisfactory answers that don't trigger any alarm bells, you shouldn't write them off just because they're not a Realtor.

Here are red flags to watch for:

Warning sign Why it's a red flag
The agent doesn't have MLS access. They will be at a disadvantage marketing your home or helping you find a new one.
The agent says it's too expensive to join a Realtor association. They may not be closing many deals, suggesting they're inexperienced or possibly just an inferior agent.
The agent isn't eligible for NAR due to past ethical violations. They may not be someone you want helping you complete a complicated financial transaction.

Why it might not matter whether an agent is a Realtor

There are cases when it's unwise to hire an agent who's not a Realtor. But the Realtor title itself does not tell you enough about an individual member's expertise to make NAR affiliation a deciding factor in your agent search.

NAR has invested heavily in marketing campaigns that encourage consumers to use Realtors. These campaigns feature two main arguments:

  • Realtors are experts in the real estate field.
  • Realtors are held to a higher ethical standard than other agents.

In individual circumstances, those things may be true. However, Realtors aren't more qualified or ethical than other agents by definition.

Realtors aren't automatically more qualified

Realtor association membership may signal that an agent is serious about their real estate career, but it does not mean the person is a superior agent.

Agents do not have to "earn" the Realtor title by acquiring a set number of years of experience or completing a certain number of transactions. They just have to join a Realtor association, whose membership requirements are generally basic enough that an agent can join before they've ever made a sale.

Typical standards require applicants to:

  • Have a real estate license
  • Work for a broker who is a Realtor
  • Have a record clear of recent criminal/civil penalties related to real estate activities
  • Pay membership dues
  • Complete a short orientation course
  • Agree to abide by NAR's Code of Ethics
  • Complete 2.5 hours of ethics training every 3 years

We recommend that you ask any agent to demonstrate their qualifications by providing you with a detailed sales history and a list of references.

Realtors aren't necessarily more "ethical"

Working with a Realtor doesn't automatically guarantee you a higher level of professionalism, either.

NAR touts its Code of Ethics, which holds Realtors to a higher standard than what's generally legally required, as a crucial differentiator between its members and other real estate professionals.

In theory, the Code of Ethics gives consumers an extra layer of protection against unscrupulous agents. Individual Realtor associations can fine, suspend, or otherwise discipline members who violate the code, even if the agent's actions don't technically break any laws.

However, in practice, it's not clear how much this benefits individual consumers. NAR guidelines prohibit local associations from publicizing disciplinary actions to non-members. So, unless an agent voluntarily tells you about their past misdeeds, you can't know for sure whether they've ever violated the Code of Ethics.

Every state has laws and regulations governing real estate agent behavior, and while they may be less extensive than the Code of Ethics, the disciplinary process is more transparent. Consumers can check their state licensing board's website to learn if an agent has ever been reprimanded.

Besides, an agent can behave ethically — and even commit to following NAR's Code of Ethics — without being a member of a Realtor association.

To gauge an agent's professionalism, we recommend obtaining references from recent clients and researching online reviews. These things will likely tell you more about an individual agent's reputation than the mere fact of whether they're a Realtor.

Conclusion: Should I hire a Realtor?

Whether you choose to only hire an agent who's a Realtor is a personal decision. It could be a wise move if:

  • Non-Realtors can't access the MLS in your area.
  • You feel more comfortable knowing an agent is bound to NAR's Code of Ethics.

Otherwise, you should judge Realtors and non-Realtors alike — on their merits.

Start by interviewing multiple agents to find one who seems like a good fit. Then ask yourself:

  • Do they seem knowledgeable?
  • Are they experienced working with clients in your market and price range?
  • Are you satisfied with the level of service they're offering?
  • If you're selling, are you comfortable with their expected fee structure?
  • Do you trust them?

When you find an agent you like, verify their qualifications:

  • Ask for a detailed sales history.
  • Ask for a list of recent references — and call them!
  • Confirm their license status and check for disciplinary violations.
  • Check online reviews at Google, Yelp, and the Better Business Bureau.

You don't necessarily have to use a Realtor, but we DO recommend partnering with a qualified real estate agent when buying or selling property. It's one of the most complicated types of financial transactions you'll ever make, and you're more likely to have a positive outcome if you have an expert on your side.

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How to become a Realtor

The first step to becoming a Realtor is obtaining an entry-level real estate license. In most states, this is called a "salesperson" license.

Applicants must generally be at least 18 years old (19 in a few states), have a high school diploma or GED, and be eligible to work in the United States.

Every state requires aspiring agents to complete pre-licensing real estate education — which may be a specific course or a set number of classroom hours — and pass an exam.

Find your state in the chart below to learn what license you'll need and how much education you'll need to complete to become a real estate agent.

Note that these are just general guidelines for complete real estate novices. Many states allow you to satisfy some or all of the pre-licensing education requirements with college-level coursework in real estate or relevant experience.

After passing your licensing exam, you'll need to pay your state's application fees (generally a few hundred dollars) and find a brokerage to sponsor you. Remember: if you want to become a Realtor — i.e., join the National Association of Realtors — your broker must already be a member.

Once you've found a qualifying brokerage, you'll be eligible to join your local Realtor association, which will automatically grant you reciprocal membership in both your state-level association and NAR.

FAQ About Realtors

Are all real estate agents Realtors?

No. "Realtor" is a trademarked term that refers exclusively to members of the National Association of Realtors, a private trade group for real estate professionals.

You don't have to become a Realtor to be a real estate agent, although most agents are Realtors.

Nor do you have to be an agent to become a Realtor. NAR membership is open to other industry professionals, including appraisers and property managers.

The caveat to this rule is that many people use the uncapitalized "realtor" as a generic word for real estate agent.

» MORE: Realtor vs. real estate agent

Is a real estate salesperson a Realtor?

No. Although you may hear them used interchangeably, "real estate salesperson" and "Realtor" have distinct meanings.

In most places, a real estate salesperson is an agent who holds the state's entry-level real estate license. But in every state, the title "Realtor" is reserved for members of the National Association of Realtors. A salesperson may be a Realtor — but only if they join NAR.

» MORE: How to become a Realtor

Will it cost more to use a Realtor than another real estate agent?

No. In general, it shouldn't cost more to use a Realtor than another real estate agent.

Most agents work for commission, which the seller typically pays out of their sale proceeds. The average commission rate is 5-6% of the property's sale price, divided between the buyer's and seller's agents (who split their commission with their brokerages).

Sellers can often save money by negotiating a lower commission rate with their agent.

» MORE: What Is Realtor Commission?

How do I find out if an agent is a Realtor?

You can verify that a real estate agent is an active member of the National Association of Realtors by checking the organization's directory.

Is Realtor always capitalized?

Technically, yes. Realtor is a registered trademark of the National Association of Realtors, and according to NAR, it should always be capitalized.

However, contrary to these guidelines, "realtor" is commonly used as a generic term for real estate agent. In this context, it's usually not capitalized.

What year was the term Realtor approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) approved the Realtor trademark in 1950, more than 30 years after the term's invention in 1916. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) won the trademark for the plural form of the term — Realtors — in 1949.

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