Getting financial advise

Knowing the different qualifications real estate pros have should help you find the best one for you. (Getty Images)

The process of choosing a real estate agent should be a careful one. You want to work with a professional who will not only act in your best interest, but will also effectively guide you every step of the way so you feel confident about your home sale or purchase.

But when you’re browsing for potential agents, how do you decipher the differences between a licensed agent, a Realtor and a broker? Does one guarantee you an unmatched level of service, and should you take the title into account when deciding who to work with?

If you have trouble understanding the differences between an agent, Realtor or broker, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

“Everybody calls us all brokers,” says Allen Brewington, a licensed associate broker with Triplemint, a full-service real estate firm in New York City.

To help you tell them apart, we’ve broken down the types of licensed real estate professionals based on their role and experience, as well as other factors to consider as you vet potential representatives.

[Read: Your Guide to the Housing Market.]

Real Estate Agent, Sales Associate or Salesperson

Every person who is licensed to represent buyers and sellers in a real estate transaction is a real estate agent – or a licensed real estate sales associate or salesperson, as it’s more commonly known in some parts of the U.S.

The license is required to legally work on behalf of buyers and sellers in real estate transactions. It is issued by the state the agent works in, with variations on a minimum number of instructional hours, and a test is required to receive certification.

Most states additionally require a background check and fingerprinting, as Wyoming does, according to B.J. Jibben, licensing specialist for the Wyoming Real Estate Commission.

Many real estate agents practice successfully without ever seeking certification beyond the required state license. While a salesperson could have decades of experience and simply not wish to pursue a different title, she still carries the same title as another agent who just received his license. But in an industry where success is often based on reputation, the professional’s title doesn’t always carry much weight.

Broker Associate

Real estate agents can choose to pursue a higher level of licensing after working in the industry professionally. In Wyoming, for example, a licensed salesperson must be actively engaged in real estate deals for at least two of the last four years, take additional education courses and submit fingerprints for another background check, among other requirements, to become a broker associate, Jibben says.

In terms of the role a broker associate plays in a deal, there's not much of a difference compared to a salesperson. But the impact, professionally, can be significant. "We get the broker's license because we want people to know we have the extra training," Brewington says.

While the average consumer or client may not fully grasp the difference in experience or training, Brewington says that the designation takes peer-to-peer interaction to another level. In a city like New York where new agents are always entering the real estate field, the associate broker designation ensures Brewington is never mistaken for a novice in the industry.

Broker

Many states offer an additional level of licensing: broker. In this role, occasionally specified as a principal broker or responsible broker, the individual is the head of a real estate firm, and fellow real estate agents work or him or her.

Depending on the state, however, the role of the broker could be different. Oregon has a simplified licensing structure in which the entry-level real estate licensee is known as a broker. Then with the additional education, exam and three years of experience, a broker "can move up to a principal broker," says Mesheal Heyman, communications coordinator for the Oregon Real Estate Agency, the state organization that handles licensing, education and investigation in the real estate profession.

[Listen: How to Pick a Real Estate Agent With 'Million Dollar Listing New York' Star Ryan Serhant]

Realtor

Any agent or broker who is a member of the National Association of Realtors can be identified as a Realtor – and that accounts for a lot of professionals, as the NAR is the largest trade association in the U.S., with more than 1.3 million members as of February.

The biggest distinction between an NAR member and an unaffiliated agent is that Realtors agree to follow a set of ethics guidelines aimed at ensuring the integrity of the agent and protecting clients.

The NAR’s code addresses a Realtor’s duties to clients and customers, the public and fellow Realtors, and some expectations include the accurate portrayal of market value to a client and refraining from lying about fellow real estate professionals. Violation of the code or standards could lead to the individual’s removal from the association.

While this code of ethics holds NAR members to a higher standard, in most cases a real estate agent can only lose his or her real estate license when convicted of a crime that prompts action from the state. Jibben says the Wyoming Real Estate Commission investigates every verified complaint filed about a licensed salesperson or broker, but the commission will also recommend complaints of a strictly ethical nature to such a trade association.

"If that real estate agent is also a Realtor, we would tell the complainant to also file a complaint with the local (Realtor) board as well," Jibben says.

Buyer's Agent

In a real estate purchase, the agent representing the buyer, regardless of whether he is a licensed agent, associate broker or otherwise, is known as the buyer's agent.

While many agents represent both buyers and sellers, depending on the deal, others may choose to only represent buyers. When this is the case, the designation as exclusive buyer's agent may be applied.



Listing Agent

On the opposite end of a deal from the buyer's agent, the professional representing the seller is typically known as the listing agent because the agreement signed with the seller to market the property for sale is known as a listing.

Leasing Agent or Landlord's Agent

Working with a professional to lease an apartment or rental home also means you'll be working with a licensed agent.

Many renters throughout the U.S. are used to inquiring with an apartment community's leasing office on their own. The leasing agents who work for the landlord or property management company are licensed to be able to facilitate the lease deal.

Tenant's Agent

At times you may find you need the assistance of a professional when searching for available rentals, in which case you can enlist the help of a tenant's agent. A tenant's agent is is licensed and may be a sales agent, associate broker or broker. While some agents choose to partake in lease deals exclusively, many also take part in real estate sales and purchases.

[Read: 9 Red Flags to Watch for When Picking a Real Estate Agent]

What Type of Agent Should You Use?

A few years of experience or adherence to a specific code may make you feel more comfortable hiring one person over another, but as with any industry, there are subpar professionals at every level of real estate brokerage. It’s important to carefully vet candidates with questions specific to your needs as a homebuyer or seller.

It's natural to want to work with an experienced professional, though the title doesn't necessarily convey an individual agent's level of success. "I know plenty of people who do not have a broker's license that do tens of millions of dollars in business," Brewington says.

To narrow your search another way, the NAR and other real estate organizations offer additional training for real estate agents to specialize in particular types of deals or clients. For example, Realtors can receive the Military Relocation Professional or Certified Buyer Representative designations after taking courses relevant to a specific industry niche. The National Association of Senior Move Managers is a separate organization that licensed agents at any level may choose to train in that specialize in downsizing and moving senior clients.

Whatever your particular situation may entail – whether you’re a first-time homebuyer who wants additional guidance or you’re looking to purchase a vacation home – you can typically find a certification that makes you feel more confident when you begin your search for a real estate agent.


The Best Apps for House Hunting

Browse for homes – and maybe even close a deal.

Woman on smartphone

(Getty Images)

Luckily for homebuyers, house hunting apps are growing in number and sophistication. As the online real estate marketing industry becomes more competitive, mobile apps are getting better at helping consumers find accurate housing information while offering features to help users narrow down their search. Read on for some of the most popular and helpful apps to use when searching for your next house. All apps are available on both iOS and Android.

Updated on Nov. 6, 2019: This slideshow was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Zillow

Zillow

(Courtesy of Zillow)

This is the most downloaded real estate app for both Apple and Android phones, and it includes Zillow's signature map and home value estimate tools. With more than 100 million homes in its database, Zillow's app is the most popular method for users to explore the platform. In fact, Zillow reports that more than two-thirds of its usage takes place on a mobile device, jumping to more than three-quarters on the weekends.

Best feature: The app’s dashboard includes a Your Home tab that allows you to store your property’s information and see how its value estimate changes over time.

Pro: You have the option to filter your saved searches by property listings that have recently changed, so you don’t have to scroll far to see if a house's asking price dropped.

Con: As much as you may want it to be, the Zillow Zestimate isn’t a guarantee of what your home will sell for.

Realtor.com Real Estate Search

Realtor.com Real Estate Search

(Courtesy of Realtor.com)

Filters on this app's search function allow you to include specific details on your must-have list, such as multiple floors, a fireplace, central air and even community swimming pools or security features.

Best feature: With the Sign Snap feature, you can take a photo of a real estate sign you see in a neighborhood and get details about the property right away.

Pro: You have the option to connect with a real estate agent who can represent you as the buyer in a deal, but you can also see the contact information of the listing agent if you want to talk to him or her directly.

Con: The more specific filters rely on listing agents using the right keywords, so if you’re struggling to find everything you want in a house, you may have to widen your search and keep an eye out for details in listing photos.

Trulia

Trulia

Fascia and Ridge of Gable Roof

(Getty Images)

Trulia’s app gives users a desktop-like experience in a mobile platform, with a focus on design that makes it easy to use.

Best feature: Trulia polls its online users who live in specific neighborhoods and includes the results on the app. For example, you might find that 93% of one neighborhood's respondents feel comfortable walking alone at night or that 76% say kids play outside regularly.

Pros: On each property profile, Trulia lists local legal protections, noting whether there is legislation in the area to protect against discrimination for gender identity or sexual orientation in employment, housing or public accommodations.

Cons: On any property profile, you’re prompted to call or email an agent about the property. While this is convenient if you’re serious about buying but don’t have an agent, it can get in the way if you’re just browsing.

Redfin Real Estate

Redfin Real Estate

Stock image of someone holding a smart phone.

(Getty Images)

Since Redfin utilizes an out-of-the-box business model with agents and professionals specializing in different steps of the homebuying and selling process, the company’s app serves as a way for users and Redfin agents to communicate. A map indicates which properties are listed by Redfin or another broker and also notes homes that are likely to sell fast through its Hot Homes feature.

Best feature: You can schedule a tour with a Redfin agent directly through the app. The app even lists the next available tour time.

Pro: You can click the heart symbol to keep a property you like on your radar, and you can also nix properties so they don’t keep popping up in searches.

Con: If you don’t live in one of the 80 markets where Redfin has agents, the app offers local listing information pulled from the MLS, but you won't be able to utilize the features that connect you with Redfin agents.

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

(Courtesy of Homesnap)

Homesnap gives house hunters the reins with this app. A signature feature allows users to take a photo of a home, and the app will identify the property and provide details about it from the local multiple listing service or public records.

Best feature: The beginning of each property profile details the property history, including previous sale prices and when it last went on market.

Pro: Each home has a section that allows you to determine your commute route and time and see both map and street views of the property.

Con: The property details are in list form, which you can expand to see everything from the home's architectural style to number of bathrooms and homeowners association fees. The depth of information is helpful, but long lists can make it easy to lose focus and miss key criteria.

Homes.com

Homes.com

Woman on her phone

(Getty Images)

On this app, you can search based on your needs and desires, including buying versus renting, home value information for properties on the market and what neighborhoods are ideal based on your preferred commute time.

Best feature: An exclamation point in the corner of a property profile lets you know that it’s a new listing, which can help you move quickly to avoid competition with other buyers.

Pro: If you'd like to get in touch with a local agent, the bottom of a property's profile often lists more than one option, making it easier for you to shop around for the right agent.

Con: While Homes.com has much of the same property information as other house hunting platforms, the app doesn't offer much in the way of neighborhood information.

Estately Real Estate

Estately Real Estate

Mature businesswoman at cafe

(Getty Images)

Estately aims to connect consumers with the right local real estate agent, and its app offers multiple ways to get in touch with agents.

Best feature: Users can click on icons on property profiles for quick information on taxes, utilities, appliances, schools and more. Profiles also include scores on things like area noise pollution and internet speed – details that aren’t always considered but could be deal-breakers.

Pro: The app encourages you to see houses in person, with multiple opportunities on a property profile to schedule a day and time to visit.

Con: Estately only covers markets in 40 states, so those looking for homes in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky and several others are out of luck.

Century 21 Local

Century 21 Local

(Courtesy of Century 21)

A longstanding national brokerage, Century 21 provides consumers with access to home listing information pulled from the local multiple listing services. The app can particularly come in handy if you plan to use a Century 21 agent, as that’s who you'll be in touch with if you would like to inquire more about a property.

Best feature: The app provides a notes section for every property, so you can keep track of your impressions as you compare homes.

Pro: If you start searching for homes in a different city, information about the local Century 21 brokerage you should contact changes accordingly, although you can still see listings from brokerages outside Century 21.

Con: This app pulls from Zillow to provide home value estimates, but occasionally lists "unavailable" even if the property has a Zestimate available on Zillow.

The best apps for house hunting include:

The best apps for house hunting include:

A row of detached homes in an idyllic community in Fredericksburg, Virginia

(Getty Images)

  • Zillow.
  • Realtor.com Real Estate Search.
  • Trulia.
  • Redfin Real Estate.
  • Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals.
  • Homes.com.
  • Estately Real Estate.
  • Century 21 Local.

Read More

Updated on March 1, 2019: This story was originally published on March 29, 2017, and has been updated with new information.

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


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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