Online real estate schools provide training via the Internet for anyone who wants to work in the industry as a real estate agent (salesperson) or broker. Obtaining a real estate license online sounds like a smart way to go. It seems perfect for someone wanting to change careers without having to stop working at their current job. But do online real estate schools provide quality education?

Investopedia spoke with Andy Smith, whose experience and expertise in real estate provides superb insight into the world of online real estate education. To establish context for our conversation, Andy shared the following outlines of the main components and classifications of real estate training:

Components of Real Estate Training

These components are generally covered by all forms of real estate training, including by online schools.

  • Pre-licensing (generally includes a national portion and a state portion)
  • Exam prep
  • Post-licensing (required by some states to be "fully qualified" and able to operate on your own)
  • Continuing education (requirements vary by state; plus the National Association of Realtors (NAR) has mandatory ethics requirement every three years)
  • Advanced education (designations & specializations)

Classifications of Real Estate Training

How real estate education takes place is referred to as its classification. Online schools primarily utilize the first two classifications.

  • Synchronous classes. These are like in-person courses, and they maintain set meeting times where the professor instructs learners over Zoom or a similar service (i.e., students and instructors are together in time but not distance).
  • Asynchronous classes. These are courses that do not hold scheduled meetings. Students complete work at and meet assignment deadlines in a more self-paced time frame. This may also be referred to as "distance learning" (i.e., students and instructors are separated by time and distance).
  • Live in-person classes. These are traditional classes where a class meets on a regular schedule, with face-to-face instruction (i.e., students and instructors are together in time and distance).
  • Hybrid classes. Students might find this in some cases. These courses offer a mix of synchronous or live in-person work and asynchronous activities. 

What follows is our edited conversation with Andy Smith:

Defining Online Real Estate Schools

Investopedia: What are online real estate schools and who are they for?

Andy Smith: Online real estate schools are education providers that offer real estate courses via the web, rather than the traditional brick-and-mortar, in-person method. Their offerings can cover a wide range of real estate education needs, including pre-licensing, post-licensing, exam prep, continuing education, certification, and designation training. Or they can focus on a more specific niche. Courses can be offered self-paced or on a more traditional schedule and can be offered synchronously or asynchronously.

People pursuing a real estate license are often employed in another job while taking classes, so online courses are a great option; online courses for continuing education courses are also a great option since most realtors are working and probably busy. 

I enjoy the convenience of taking the courses I can on my schedule and from the comfort of home if possible. Pre-COVID, the state of North Carolina required our annual four-hour update course to be taken live in the classroom. During COVID, they made an exception and permitted live, synchronous online classes. All other training can be accomplished online, synchronously or asynchronously, to give students options.

Online Real Estate School Curriculum

Investopedia: What should a good online real estate school curriculum look like?

Smith: The overall course curriculum has to conform to the individual state requirements for licensing. Each course in the curriculum should have a well-defined structure laid out in a course syllabus or similar document and include overarching course objectives; topic learning objectives; instructional methods used; materials the student must obtain, including software and hardware; along with contact information for technical support and the instructor's name and contact info.

By the way, states dictate content on pre- and post-licensing courses. Continuing education classes typically offer instructors leeway, though the content must be approved by the state.

Instructional Pace and Tools

Investopedia: Is instruction typically at the student's pace or does it follow a more rigid structure?

Smith: This, I think, largely depends on the type of training you're doing. If you are in a pre-licensing class, especially one that is synchronous, it's more likely you will have a stricter schedule to get through the course. Many post-licensing classes, if applicable in your state, would be more structured as well. Think of them more like taking a college class online. Continuing education courses, especially electives, tend to be more self-paced.

Investopedia: What are some useful instructional tools that better online schools employ?

Smith: Most schools will have at least basic presentation material, usually consisting of a slide show and accompanying script or course manual. The "better" online schools will offer more features and possibly more interactive features. Some features might be short video clips to highlight key points; periodic summary or review points, progress checks, or similar; progress dashboards; and more robust access to instructors.

Development of the more interactive type courses is expensive, so you will tend to see these with the national or large regional education providers and for the pre-licensing courses that many people will take. Most of the education providers have examples of their course content on their websites and prospective students should check those out for themselves. If you think the more interactive style is better suited for your learning style, you should limit your search to the larger providers.

Certification Versus Accreditation

Investopedia: What body provides oversight of online real estate schools?

Smith: Schools must be approved (or certified) by each state's regulatory authorities. This is the state's Division of Real Estate or equivalent.

Certification by the state if required for all real estate schools, including online schools. Accreditation is optional, though highly desired from an education perspective, according to Smith.

Investopedia: How are online real estate schools accredited?

Smith: Not all online real estate schools are accredited, per se; though, as a former academic, accreditation is very important from an education perspective. Schools must be approved by each state's regulatory authorities.

Two accreditation bodies for online schools (one for general online and one specifically for real estate schools) are International Distance Education Certification Center (IDECC) and The Association of Real Estate License Law (ARELLO). I look at this as IDECC accredits a school's online teaching methods (delivery) and effectiveness, and ARELLO accredits the school's real estate specific information (content).

Investopedia: How can prospective students ensure a particular school is accredited? 

Smith: Schools that are accredited will usually identify this on their website. Additionally, prospective students can go to the IDECC and ARELLO websites and look them up. That information, along with instructor profiles, is on most websites, allowing students to check out the experience and qualifications of school staff, including whether instructors have CDEI (Certified Distance Education Instructor) certification.

Where to Go to Complain

Investopedia: Where do students go to complain if there's a problem? 

Smith: Depending on the nature of the problem, students should to to their instructor or school first and to the state regulatory body second. State real estate division websites may have further information. North Carolina, for example, has a complaint form for students to use to provide information regarding complaints against education providers. The course outline or syllabus should also address the student complaint process.

Pros and Cons of Online Real Estate Schools

Investopedia: What are some pros and cons of online real estate schools?

Smith: Convenience and flexibility are definite pros. So is the fact that there is no need to travel to a classroom setting. Others may include savings in tuition, travel, and related costs. The ability to study anywhere and anytime, the flexibility to work during the day and complete coursework in the evening or on weekends, is a big plus. Finally, the flexibility to take courses when you are ready or available (rather than having to wait for the next quarter, for instance) is also an advantage.

On the cons side (and depending on the type of online instruction), you may miss out on interactions between students and teachers, the ability to ask questions that arise in the moment, or get instant feedback from your instructor. Also missing, personal connections with fellow students and instructors, networking, and general relationship building.

Comparing Online to In-person Classes

Investopedia: How do online schools compare to in-person classes?

Smith: In terms of the bottom-line, successfully completing the education, I'd say there is very little difference. In general with education, whether in classroom or online, I always say you get out of it what you put into it. 

I've taken classes by each method and I've taught classes by every method (traditional four years on campus for bachelor's, night and weekend classes for MBA, and online classes for another master's degree in personal financial planning) as a student and on the other side as a college professor. 

I think in-person classes are better overall in some cases. One, for the reasons mentioned including the lack of personal interaction and networking. Two, I also think it depends on what type of learning you are doing. I think traditional classes for pre-licensing could be a good thing for some students — or a synchronous online course. If online is better for you for whatever reason, it will definitely still meet your requirements.

Other Real Estate Educational Alternatives

Investopedia: What alternatives are there for someone seeking a real estate license?

Smith: This is largely state dependent, but I believe many states will substitute some college courses in lieu of education requirements. When I was first licensed in Colorado, I was credited with meeting their 168-hour pre-licensing requirement based on my college coursework. North Carolina has a similar exception to meet its pre-licensing requirements.

Some states also have a process to evaluate a course or other activities for continuing education credit. Some colleges, primarily community colleges, offer pre-licensing and post-licensing courses.

The Cost of an Online Real Estate Education

Investopedia: How much do online real estate schools cost?

Smith: Generally speaking, online courses tend to be cheaper [than in-person classes]. Comparing pre-licensing between states is difficult based on different requirements. In North Carolina, for example, online pre-licensing courses range from $249 to $479. N.C. pre-licensing requires 75 hours of education. A prominent local education provider charges $495 for the pre-licensing class in person and offers a small discount for the online version. The local community college in my city offers in-person for $295, which shows it pays to shop around. 

A similar search for Colorado, my previous state, shows online pre-licensing courses running around $300, even though Colo. requires 168 hours of education. In Texas, as another example, online courses run around $700 and require 270 hours of education. 

I recently completed my continuing education requirements, and a four-hour, synchronous Zoom class was $50 rather than what is usually around $75 for an in-person live class. Pre-licensing classes probably have similar comparisons but also vary widely from state to state based on how many hours of coursework are required. 

Availability of Student Aid

Investopedia: What, if any, student aid is available for online real estate schools?

Smith: I am not aware of any student financial aid. In some cases, a student might be able to use Va. benefits, like GI Bill for some coursework, probably mostly pre-licensing. Other forms of loans, grants, scholarships, or maybe employer assistance might be available as well, so prospective students should research all options. 

I don't think financial assistance is as available as it might be for a degree-granting program. [If the state offers credit for university classes,] college coursework might also provide access to more traditional financial assistance.

Job Prospects Once You Have Your License

Investopedia: Do people who hire new real estate brokers or salespeople care how you received your education? 

Smith: No. Online courses prepare students for their future just as well as on-campus courses because they follow the same guidelines and cover the same content as required by the state regulatory agencies.

Advice for Prospective Online Real Estate Learners

Investopedia: What is your recommendation to anyone thinking about taking online real estate courses?

Smith: Assuming you've done the preliminary research concerning jobs or careers in real estate and are pretty sure you want to pursue it, I recommend going to your state's real estate governing body's website to learn more state specific information. Most of those websites will lay out the requirements to get licensed and to stay licensed, including the education requirements. 

Many, if not most, will also provide links to approved education providers, information on pass rates for each of the pre-licensing education providers, and information on the topics the pre-licensing education covers. 

As far as whether to take online or in-person classes, I would recommend self-evaluation of your learning style and which course delivery method best suits you. Consider the pros and cons of each, the availability of training to meet your schedule, and make your decision based on that.