Real estate agent using digital tablet

Becoming a licensed agent is relatively simple, but don't expect instant success. (Getty Images)

Want to be a real estate agent? Working as a licensed real estate salesperson is an ideal job for many, with flexible hours, high earning potential and a relatively quick process to become an agent.

Before jumping into a new career, however, know that your success in real estate may also be tough to achieve. It’s beholden to the ebb and flow of the local economy, your ability to master an understanding of the market and your willingness to put yourself out there to connect with consumers and other professionals.

The National Association of Realtors, the largest trade association for the real estate industry, reports it has more than 1.2 million members, about 65 percent of which are licensed real estate agents. That makes at least 780,000 licensed agents in NAR, which only make up a portion of the total number of real estate agents throughout the country.

[Read: What Your Real Estate Agent Can't Tell You.]

Becoming a licensed agent is relatively simple, although the requirements vary from state to state. You’ll want to look up the specific requirements for your state, which are often determined by the state’s real estate commission. But the requirements from state to state largely mirror each other, and the guidelines below represent the overlap that applies to most of the U.S.

Here’s what you need to do to begin a career and succeed as a real estate agent:

No real estate license in the U.S. requires a bachelor’s degree, but in many cases you need either a high school diploma or a GED. Even if high school equivalency isn’t required for the license, many colleges that offer real estate education courses do require equivalency to enroll. All 50 states require you to be either 18 or 19 years old, depending on the state, to become a licensed real estate agent.

Most states require a minimum number of hours of instruction time, often either through an approved classroom or online course. Depending on the state, the requirement can be as few as 40 hours or as many as 300. Companies such as Brightwood Real Estate Education, Real Estate Express and Fit Small Business offer prelicense courses across multiple states. You can also inquire with your local college or even a local real estate brokerage that offers classes. Various branches of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, Coldwell Banker and Re/Max throughout the U.S. offer classes, potentially with a reimbursed or discounted fee if the agent works for the broker after receiving his or her license.

Your prelicense courses should all lead up to your real estate license exam, which is issued by the state and covers working with clients, negotiating, closing a deal and following real estate law. Your state sets the minimum score to pass the test – in Michigan and California, for example, a 70 percent or higher score is required to pass, while in New Mexico a score of 75 percent is required. Most states allow you to retake the exam if you don’t pass the first time, although there may be a maximum number of attempts or time period between retakes.

In most states, you can’t get your license and immediately set up your own firm – you need to work under an experienced broker to gain experience. There’s a wide variety of employment options, however, whether it’s a traditional brokerage where you may be placed on the team to gain experience from a top-producing agent or opting to go with a nontraditional brokerage that pays a salary, like Redfin. At Richardson Properties, an independent brokerage and affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate and Luxury Portfolio International in San Luis Obispo, California, the real training takes place when you work with an experienced agent. Charles Richardson, founder and broker at Richardson Properties, says new agents will work under a seasoned agent for anywhere from six months to a year, learning the ropes when it comes to meeting client needs, holding open houses, connecting with potential future clients, negotiating and getting a deal to the closing table. In that time, he says, “There’s somebody there watching you and helping you.”

[See: 8 Home-Selling Buzzwords That Annoy Consumers.]

Once you become a licensed real estate agent, you’re able to be a part of the transaction itself, whether you’re representing a buyer, seller, renter or landlord. Of course, the key is in how you gain experience and work to grow your business as an agent. Here are four things seasoned agents recommend for a successful start to your new career.

If you’re working on commission, which most real estate agents are, you likely won’t be bringing home the big bucks right away because you don't get paid until you close a deal. Michael and Rebecca Straley, Realtors with eXp Realty in Stafford, Virginia, recommend looking at your assets before getting started. Be ready to feel your wallet tighten as you spend the first six months to a year establishing yourself on your own as an agent before you can feel comfortable that you’ll be closing enough deals to cover your cost of living without having to dip into savings. You may want to look at alternative options, like working for a brokerage that pays salary rather than commission, or even taking on a second job while you’re getting started.



Taking a real estate course will help you understand local real estate law, but as a professional you’ll have clients relying on you to help interpret real estate market changes, assess the value of a property and know how to negotiate effectively. But that can’t all be taught in an online course. “You’ve got to get in the business and learn from there,” Richardson says. He adds that the biggest success stories come from new agents who aren’t afraid to get out and introduce themselves to people they don’t know, an effective technique he discovered when he started in the business more than 50 years ago: “I learned really quick that I needed to get out and see the people.”

Real estate agents who get repeat customers, positive reviews and high commission are often those who manage to specialize so they can meet different consumers’ needs. As members of NAR, many Realtors take courses through the association that certify them in specific fields, like military relocation or investor representation. The Straleys teach courses for NAR for the Accredited Buyer’s Representative and Pricing Strategy Advisor certifications. “These two courses provide basic steps similar to on-the-job training with real-life applications. Real-life applications lead to anticipation, and then solutions, and then mastery,” Rebecca Straley wrote in an email.

[Read: The Homebuying Strategy You Haven't Heard Of: Going Off-Market.]

The real estate industry is greatly affected by the local economy, construction, employment rates, local government policy and interest rates. Problems in one area can make the life of a real estate agent tough, and you have to be ready to change the way you do business. “You have to adapt to the market,” Richardson says. He recalls how national economic downturns have always had a devastating effect on how many agents can stay in business. In the early 1980s, he says, “When (interest rates were) 17, 18 percent, we lost around a third of Realtors in California.” Whether it’s teaming up with specific banks to help qualified buyers, which Richardson did in the 1980s, or partnering with investors interested in house flipping, which many agents did during the Great Recession, you have to adjust your strategy to find the right clients you can work with.


8 Potential Headaches to Be Aware of Before Becoming a Homeowner

Be ready for things to go wrong.

The facia board is rotted and the gutters a re falling away from the house.  Look for other images in this series.

(Getty Images)

No one loves shelling out money for unexpected expenses, but sometimes that seems like a rite of passage in homeownership. “Most of the time, the unhappy surprises are simply due to people being unaware of the things that can crop up,” says Brad Hunter, chief economist for HomeAdvisor. First-time homebuyers in particular may not know what to expect after closing on a home, and there’s nothing worse than developing buyer’s remorse about one of the largest investments you’ll ever make. Here are eight headaches to prepare for if you’re looking to purchase a house.

A suddenly less-than-desirable location

A suddenly less-than-desirable location

Aerial View of school buildings and a track Central Texas near Austin

(Getty Images)

Buying a house across the street from a high school didn’t seem like such a bad idea when you saw how nicely renovated it was. But when you don’t have kids and Friday night football games are keeping you up later than you would like, you realize you should have made a pros-and-cons list regarding the location. Don’t let a charming interior override a location you dislike or a lot that will give you flooding problems. “If you don’t like your lot, don’t buy the house, because you cannot change that,” says Kim Wirtz, a Realtor for Century 21 Affiliated in Lockport, Illinois.

A high monthly mortgage payment

A high monthly mortgage payment

House keys over the hundred dollar banknotes against wooden background

(Getty Images)

One of the most crippling headaches to deal with is a monthly mortgage payment you find you can’t quite afford. Lysette Portales, a real estate agent with Century 21 Jim White & Associates in Treasure Island, Florida, says she stresses to clients that they should shop around for a mortgage with multiple lenders and inquire with each about different program options. “A lot of them might be able to do 100 percent [financing],” she says, noting that many homebuyers typically only know about a couple mortgage programs and settle for one without considering what would be most affordable option both now and down the line.

Items that are on their last legs

Items that are on their last legs

A man uses a flashlight to help him see the hot water heater in a dark closet

(Getty Images)

Whether it's the roof, water heater or furnace, aging home systems will need replacement. And that may end up being sooner than you’d like, especially if you didn’t pay close attention to the age and condition of the roof, plumbing, electric and heating and cooling systems when your inspector pointed them out. HomeAdvisor’s 2015 New Homeowner Survey found that 75 percent of homeowners face an unexpected emergency within a year of purchase. To expect the unexpected, Hunter points to the survey’s recommendation that homeowners plan to spend 1 percent of the home’s purchase price on unplanned repairs. Maintaining at least that much in your emergency fund will help keep you from dipping into other savings from year to year.

Old systems

Old systems

An old air conditioner unit, in need of updating, sitting in tall weeds

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It’s important to pay attention to a home's aging big-ticket items before you even make an offer. “A lot of homebuyers are distracted by how cute a home can be,” Portales says, adding that she makes it her job to point out the age of the roof, air conditioning unit, water heater and more to buyers. Then when it comes time to calculate an offer, you should factor in the cost of those pieces that will need immediate replacement when determining how much you think the home is worth.

An air conditioner that's not the same

An air conditioner that's not the same

During hot summer night with air conditioning system breakdown trying to find a way to sleep in the refrigerator. Very dark atmosphere. Picture fades to black on left.

(Getty Images)

Wirtz says one of the things in a home that seems to always break or have issues within the first year of its purchase is the air conditioner. But it’s not always because it breaks down – she says it simply might not be as effective as the new homeowner wants it to be. “It may not be cooling like they’re used to,” Wirtz says. You can either learn to deal with a little less cooling, bring in an HVAC pro to inspect and fix any problems or research any DIY fixes that might get it cooling better – like air conditioner cleaning spray.

Unseen leaks

Unseen leaks

An old pipe breaks in freezing weather in Baku, Azerbaijan

(Getty Images)

Home inspectors aren’t able to see through walls, so the discovery of a pipe leak isn’t uncommon after you’ve moved into the home. But this is one repair you want to make as quickly as possible. “When there’s water that is not stopped, it can create mold – and mold remediation is extremely expensive and extremely difficult,” Hunter says. Mold growth in your home can cause serious health problems, so it’s imperative to address any moisture issues as quickly as possible to avoid it becoming any more dangerous, let alone more expensive.

Surprise renovation expenses

Surprise renovation expenses

Contractor discussing renovations

(Getty Images)

Fixer-uppers are all the rage these days, as many homebuyers are willing to take on renovation projects in exchange for a slightly lower price tag. But when budgeting for your renovations, leave plenty of room for the discovery of existing problems once your contractor looks behind the walls. The HomeAdvisor survey found 51 percent of homeowners spent more time on home projects than they expected. “Even if you have a fully vetted, well-reviewed contractor … they still might uncover issues that maybe a previous contractor left incomplete,” Hunter says. He recommends leaving around 10 percent extra space in your budget for surprise problems of any kind.

Problems that pile up

Problems that pile up

Mold grows on a wall next to a damp stained wood door.

(Getty Images)

All too often it feels like the problems in a home have a snowballing effect, but you don’t have to go broke tackling them all at once. “Day one, [homeowners] won’t have to tackle all those projects,” Hunter says. “They can use the list of items found by the home inspector as a checklist and prioritize the items on that list and create a budget.” You should immediately address those problems that create a health or safety issue, such as a broken step or leak in your roof that could lead to mold. But replacing an older dishwasher can wait until next year, when you have more room in your home repair budget.

Read More

Updated on Jan. 18, 2019: This story was previously published on Nov. 9, 2018, and has been updated with new information.

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, National Association of Realtors, new home sales, existing home sales, pending home sales, home prices


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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