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)

The days of picking up a real estate book at your local grocery store are long gone, and house hunting apps are growing in number and sophistication. As the online real estate marketing industry becomes increasingly competitive, mobile tools are getting better at helping consumers find accurate housing information. Check out some of the most popular and helpful apps to use when searching for your next house.

Updated on Dec. 12, 2018: This slideshow was originally published on Dec. 9, 2015, and has been updated with new information.

Zillow: Houses for Sale & Rent

Zillow: Houses for Sale & Rent

(Courtesy of Zillow)

The most downloaded real estate app for both Apple and Android phones, Zillow’s app includes an interactive map and home value estimate that are signature features offered by the brand. With more than 100 million homes in its database, Zillow's app is the most popular method by far. In fact, Zillow reports that more than two-thirds of its usage takes place on a mobile device, jumping to more than three-quarters of traffic on weekends.

Pro: 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.

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 the search function in the Realtor.com app allow you to include some of the more specific details on your must-have list, such as multiple floors, fireplace, central air and even community swimming pools or security features.

Pro: 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.

Con: The more specific filters rely on listing agents using all 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 the details you want in listing photos.

Trulia

Trulia

(Courtesy of Trulia)

Another of the most downloaded offerings, Trulia's app gives users the desktop site experience in a mobile platform, with a focus on design that makes it easy to use for everyone.

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 process, the company's app serves as a way for users and Redfin agents to communicate. In addition to indicating which properties are listed by Redfin or another broker, the map feature will also note homes that are likely to sell fast through its Hot Homes feature.

Pro: You can schedule a tour with a Redfin agent directly through the app. The app even lists the next available tour time, so if you’re crunched for time, you know what’s available.

Con: If you don’t live in one of the 80 markets Redfin has agents located in, the app simply serves as available listing information.

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

(Courtesy of Homesnap)

Homesnap gives house hunters the reins on its app, especially with its signature feature where you can 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.

Pro: The start of each property profile includes a property history, including previous sale prices and when it last went on market.

Con: The property details come in list form, which you can expand to see everything from the architectural style to number of bathrooms to homeowners association fees. The amount of information is helpful, but the long list can make it easy to lose focus and miss key criteria you’re looking for.

Homes.com For Sale & Rent

Homes.com For Sale & Rent

(Courtesy of Homes.com)

Through the Homes.com app, you have multiple options for searching based on your needs and desires, including buying versus renting, home value information for properties on the market and what neighborhoods work based on your preferred commute time.

Pro: Sometimes you just want to see what houses are for sale in a completely different city – and Homes.com gets that. When you open the app, it asks where you want to search, with the option to search based on your location, where the weather is nice or even a random destination.

Con: While the app offers property profiles with ads to get prequalified for a mortgage, which may be helpful to some, mortgages are best shopped for separately.

Estately Real Estate

Estately Real Estate

Upscale modern house for sale

(Getty Images)

Estately markets itself as a service that's focused on connecting consumers with the right local real estate agent, and its app follows that mission with multiple ways to get in touch with agents, whether it’s scheduling a showing or reaching out to Estately-affiliated agents listed at the bottom of property information.

Pro: The app has icons on the property profiles for information on taxes, utilities, appliances, schools and more regarding the property, making it easy to look at the details you consider most important without having to scroll.

Con: Estately only covers markets in 39 states, and while the most populous places are taken care of, residents looking for homes in Iowa, Kentucky or Maine, among others, are out of luck.

Century 21 Local

Century 21 Local

(Courtesy of Century 21)

As a longstanding national brokerage, Century 21 is in the app game by providing consumers with access to home listing information pulled from local multiple listing services. The tool can particularly come in handy if you plan to use a Century 21 agent, as that’s who you’re put in touch with if you would like to inquire more about a property.

Pro: If you start searching for homes in a different city, information about the local Century 21 brokerage you should contact changes accordingly.

Con: Photos and property information load slower than many other house hunting apps.

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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