Thinking about becoming a real estate agent? You're in good company. Every month, about 17,000 people in the U.S. Google "how to become a real estate agent," as they consider joining the nation's estimated 2 million active real estate licensees.

Key Takeaways

  • You can become a real estate agent in about four to six months, depending on where you live. Online prelicensing classes can speed up the process.
  • Requirements vary by state, but the general steps are to take a real estate prelicensing course, take the licensing exam, activate your license, and join a brokerage.
  • Only real estate agents who are members of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) can use the title Realtor. All Realtors must subscribe to NAR's strict Code of Ethics.

Why Become a Real Estate Agent? 

Working as a real estate agent offers a great deal of variety. With different clients and different homes, you won’t be doing the same thing every day. You get to meet and work with lots of people, be your own boss, and enjoy the satisfaction of helping buyers and sellers through one of life’s major milestones.

The money can be good, too. The median pay for a real estate agent is about $51,220 per year, according to 2020 data (the most recent available) from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For real estate brokers—who have additional education, testing, and experience requirements—that figure jumps to $59,720. Overall, the highest 10% of agents earned more than $112,410 in 2020, and some agents earn much more than that.

Another perk: Getting into the field is easy. Compared to other careers with similar earnings potential, getting your real estate license is a relatively quick and affordable process—and you don’t need a college degree.

Steps to Becoming a Real Estate Agent

If you want to become a real estate agent, you’re looking at an upfront investment of money and time, both of which vary depending on where you get your license. Though the specific requirements differ by state, here's a general rundown of how to become a real estate agent.

Step 1: Research Your State’s Requirements

Estimated Cost: Free

There’s no such thing as a national real estate license, so you must meet your state’s unique licensing requirements. A good place to start your research is your state’s real estate regulatory office website, which you can find through an online search for “[your state] real estate regulatory office” or by visiting the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials (ARELLO)'s regulatory agency directory.

Each state typically has specific requirements for:

  • Age
  • Education requirements (such as a high school diploma or GED)
  • Prelicensing courses and post-licensing requirements
  • Exams and exam eligibility
  • Application process and fees
  • Background checks and fingerprinting
  • Continuing education
  • How to achieve the next level of licensing
  • Reporting criminal history

Some states have reciprocal licensing agreements with other states, which means you can get your license in one state and use it in another without having to take an additional license examination.

New York, for example, has reciprocity with nine states (some states have reciprocity for brokers only): Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. As with regular licensing requirements, each state has its own process for obtaining a license through reciprocity.

Step 2: Take a Prelicensing Course

Estimated Cost: $350+

No matter where you live, you have to take a pre-licensing course from an accredited real estate licensing school before you sit for the real estate license exam. The required number of hours varies by state. In California, for example, applicants must take three real estate classes totaling 135 hours. In New York and Georgia, the courses take 75 hours; in Florida, the course takes only 63 hours. And in Texas, you need 180 hours of coursework.

Most states offer several ways to fulfill the prelicensing course requirements, including online classes, brick-and-mortar real estate schools, and classes at community colleges. You may be able to save money (and time) by enrolling in one type of class program over another, so it pays to shop around.

Choose the method that works best for your learning style and schedule. Also, do your research and be selective when it comes to picking a program. The quality of the instructors and materials will influence how well prepared you are to take the exam.

Step 3: Take the Licensing Exam

Estimated Cost: $100–$300

Your instructor should explain how to schedule, register, and pay for the licensing exam (if not, visit your state’s real estate commission website). Exams are computerized and consist of two parts: a national portion on general real estate principles and practices, and a state-specific section that covers your state’s real estate laws. The exams are multiple-choice format, and the number of questions and time allotted for the exam vary by state.

Each section is scored separately, and you must receive a passing grade on both sections to pass. If you fail one or both sections, you’ll have the opportunity to retake the exam. Each state has its own rules regarding the number of times you may retake an exam, how long you must wait between exams, and the deadline for completing any retakes.

Step 4: Activate Your Real Estate Agent License

Estimated Cost: $200–$400

When you pass the exam, it's time to submit an application and any required documents and fees to your state’s real estate regulatory organization.

When your application is approved, the state will mail your real estate license certificate, and your name will be searchable under the licensees' section of its website. Keep in mind that you’re not allowed to work as a real estate agent before your license is issued by the state’s real estate authority—so hold off until you have that license in your hand.

Step 5: Consider Becoming a Realtor

Estimated Cost: $185

Many people use the terms real estate agent and Realtor interchangeably, but they actually differ.

Though both are licensed to help buyers and sellers throughout the real estate transaction process, Realtors are members of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and subscribe to its strict Code of Ethics.

The National Association of Realtors is the largest trade association in the U.S., representing 1.3 million members who are salespeople, brokers, property managers, appraisers, counselors, and other participants in the residential and commercial real estate industries.

Though membership is optional, being a Realtor can add to your credibility as a real estate agent. As a Realtor, you’ll also have access to a variety of benefits, including:

  • Business tools
  • Real estate market data, research, and statistics
  • Educational opportunities
  • Discount programs geared toward helping you succeed in business

For example, Realtors have access to Realtors Property Resource (RPR), the largest online real estate database in the U.S., built from public record and assessment information. It includes information on zoning, permits, mortgage and lien data, schools, and a large database of foreclosures.

Step 6: Join a Real Estate Brokerage

Estimated Cost: $25–$500+ Per Month

As a real estate agent, you work under the umbrella of a supervising broker who is licensed by the state to oversee real estate transactions and make sure you (and the other real estate agents) follow the required legal and ethical standards. In general, you won’t earn an hourly salary. Instead, the brokerage will likely pay you a percentage of the commissions it collects from your real estate transactions.

Depending on the arrangement you have with your brokerage, you may have to pay for desk fees, tech fees (e.g., for your website), business cards, marketing materials, and other normal costs of doing business. You’ll also have other one-time and ongoing expenses, such as renewing your license each year, continuing education, lockbox fees, and Multiple Listing Service memberships.

Costs can easily add up to several thousand dollars per year, so it’s important to factor them into your budget when deciding if a career in real estate is right for you.

The Bottom Line

Getting a real estate license takes time and money, but it can help secure a rewarding job in the real estate industry. Keep in mind that a career as a real estate agent can be as flexible as you want it to be. You can limit your hours to mornings three days a week or never work on weekends. The trade-off, of course, is that this will greatly limit your ability to be successful.

Though you can work part-time as a real estate agent, most successful practitioners treat it as a full-time business, making themselves available to clients throughout the week and on weekends.

For increased flexibility and career opportunities, you may eventually decide to get your broker license. You may also want to consider the variety of real estate designations and certifications available, including those specific to mortgages, appraisals, residential property, commercial property, and property management. These designations can enhance your career and marketability as a real estate professional and increase your earning potential.