What Is a Real Estate Agent?

Real estate agents are licensed professionals who arrange real estate transactions, putting buyers and sellers together and acting as their representatives in negotiations. Real estate agents usually are compensated completely by a commission—a percentage of the property's purchase price, so their income depends on their ability to get a deal closed.

In almost every state, a real estate agent must work for or be affiliated with a real estate broker (an individual or a brokerage firm), who is more experienced and licensed to a higher degree.

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6 Steps to Become a Real Estate Agent

How a Real Estate Agent Works

Real estate agents usually specialize in either commercial or residential real estate. Either way, they perform different duties, depending on whether they work for the buyer or the seller. Agents who work for the seller, also known as listing agents, advise clients on how to price the property and prepare it for sale, including providing tips on last-minute improvements that can boost the price or encourage speedy offers. Seller agents market the property through listing services, networking, and advertisements.

Agents who work for the buyer search for available properties that match the buyer’s price range and wish list. These agents often look at past sales data on comparable properties to help prospective buyers come up with a fair bid.

Agents act as go-betweens for the principal parties, carrying offers and counter-offers and other questions back and forth. Once a bid is accepted, agents on both sides often continue to work, helping their clients through the paperwork, conveying communications, advising on inspections and moving, and generally shepherding the deal through to closing.

It’s important for consumers to understand whether a real estate agent represents the buyer, the seller or both parties; obviously, the agent’s loyalty can greatly affect several details of the transaction, including the final price. State laws regulate whether an agent can represent both parties in a real estate transaction, technically known as dual agency. Agents must disclose their representation so that buyers and sellers are aware of any conflicts of interest.

KEY TAKEWAYS

  • A real estate agent is a licensed professional who represents buyers or sellers in real estate transactions.
  • A real estate agent usually works on commission, being paid a percentage of the property’s sale price.
  • In most states, a real estate agent must work through a real estate broker, a firm or fellow professional with more experience and a specialized license.

Real Estate Agents' Compensation

Traditionally, an agent is paid a commission that is a percentage of the property’s sale price. The more the house sells for, the more money an agent makes. However, with online listings allowing consumers to do much of the shopping on their own without help from an agent, the traditional payment structure is changing.

Some brokerages charge a lower commission for more expensive houses, and some handle the entire transaction for a flat fee that’s much less than a regular commission. Other companies offer a fee-for-service pricing structure that lets sellers pay only for certain parts of the sale process, such as adding the property to a multiple listing service (MLS).

Real Estate Agent vs Real Estate Broker

Laymen often use the terms "real estate agent," "real estate broker," and "realtor" interchangeably. While overlap among the three definitely exists, so do key differences.

The exact definitions of and distinctions between an agent and a broker vary among states. Generally, however, anyone who earns a basic real estate license (which involves taking a certain number of accredited courses and passing an exam) can be called a real estate agent. A real estate agent is essentially a salesperson, qualified to help consumers buy or sell a property.

A real estate broker is a step up the professional food chain. Brokers have additional training and education that has qualified them to pass a higher licensing exam; most states also require them to have a certain amount of recent experience as an active real estate agent. Brokers handle the technical aspects of the real estate transaction: A client signs a contract with a brokerage, not the individual agent. In many states, their additional certification authorizes brokers to handle other legal and financial aspects of a deal: handling the earnest money deposit and establishing the escrow account.

Brokers typically own a firm or a franchise. They can be solo practitioners, but they must attain another higher-level license if they want to hire agents or other brokers to work under them. As mentioned earlier, a real estate agent usually cannot work alone, but must operate through a real estate broker; the exception is states like Colorado and New Mexico, which mandate that every real estate professional be licensed as a broker. Usually, though, agents work for brokers, and they split their commissions with them.

Real Estate Agent vs Realtor

So, every real estate broker is a real estate agent (or has been), but not every real estate agent is a broker. How do realtors fit into the equation?

A realtor is a member of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), a trade association. Both agents and brokers can be realtors, along with property managers, appraisers, and other real estate industry professionals. Realtors are expected to be experts in their field and must follow the NAR's code of ethics, which requires agents to uphold specific duties to clients and customers, to the public and to other realtors. In addition to NAR, realtors must belong to a state or local real estate association or board.

All realtors are real estate agents or brokers (or something related), but not all agents or brokers are realtors, in other words. As of November 2018, the organization reported that it had 1.36 million members. Some 65% of them held real estate agent's licenses.