All brokers are agents, but not all agents are brokers. “Real estate agent” is a generic term for any licensed professional who represents a buyer or seller in a sales transaction for a commission.
Real estate professionals are licensed and regulated by state real estate commissions. Each state has different types of licenses and different requirements.
Getting and Maintaining a Real Estate License
To get a real estate license to lawfully conduct real estate activities, you complete a prelicense course, pass the licensing exam, submit an application, and find an established real estate professional to sponsor you: a broker.
Most are two-year licenses. Before your license expires, you have to renew it by completing mandatory real estate continuing education, paying a fee, and submitting paperwork.
Salesperson and Broker
When you first earn a real estate license, you start out as a salesperson or sales agent in most states. Salespersons have to be sponsored and supervised by a broker. To get a broker’s license, you usually have to have two years of experience as a real estate licensee, complete more education, and pass an exam. A broker will then start her own real estate brokerage firm and work on her own or hire salespeople to help represent clients. The broker creates a policy manual, supervises agents, leads meetings, and reviews forms and advertising.
In some states, like Washington, there are no salespeople. The rookie agents are brokers, and their supervisor and head of the firm is a managing broker.
People also use the term “Realtor” interchangeably with “agent” as well, but not all agents are Realtors. A Realtor is a member of the largest real estate trade association: the National Association of Realtors (NAR). There are 54 state and territory associations and 1,200 local boards/associations. NAR provides resources for real estate research, education, and professional development, promoting conferences, trade expos, community programs, and leadership initiatives.
Only NAR members can apply the term “Realtor” to themselves. To join NAR, you have to:
- Be a licensed real estate salesperson or broker
- Be in a firm where the partners, corporate officers, designated broker, and branch managers are members
- Contact your local Realtor association and print out membership application forms
- Complete and submit the application
- Pay the fees and membership dues
- Attend an orientation
- Agree to adhere to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice
Seller’s Agent and Buyer’s Agent
Seller’s agents and buyer’s agents have entered into legally binding agreements to only represent one side of a transaction. They owe special fiduciary duties to their clients, meaning they must put their clients’ interests first.
Often called the listing agent, the seller’s agent represents the seller of property. The seller’s agent:
- Conducts a comparative market analysis to help set a price
- Enters the property information into the local multiple listing service (MLS)
- Helps prepare and stage the house
- Produces and distributes marketing materials
- Hosts open houses
- Handles offers
- Provides advice
- Communicates with buyer’s agents
- Negotiates the sale
The buyer’s agent represents the home-buyer. He or she:
- Learns what the buyers want and need
- Helps determine a price range
- Identifies appropriate houses for sale
- Accompanies buyers to showings
- Conducts a comparative market analysis to determine an offer
- Drafts and submits an offer to purchase
- Handles counteroffers
- Provides advice
- Communicates with seller’s agents
- Negotiates the sale
Subagent, Dual Agent, Selling Agent Oh My!
Yes, there are more terms for real estate professionals. A subagent is a cooperating agent from another brokerage firm who shows the buyer the house but does not represent him or her.
A dual agent represents both the buyer and the seller in the same transaction. This can only be legally done with the informed, written consent of both parties. Some duties, like loyalty and confidentiality, are limited and there is risk of conflicts of interest.
A selling agent is another term for the buyer’s agent representing the buyers who purchase a house.
There seems to be a confusing number of terms for people representing real estate consumers. Real estate agents are basically anyone who buys or sells real estate for others, while a broker is the boss of a firm, managing staff and salespeople. But what is more important is knowing who represents who in a transaction. That’s why states require real estate professionals to disclose, often in writing, who they represent when they meet real estate customers.
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