Real Estate Agents vs. Realtors: What's the Difference?

Both are licensed, but a Realtor has gone one step further

Realtor congratulating family outside a house with a "sold" sign
••• Martin Barraud / Getty Images

People use the terms Realtor and real estate agent interchangeably, but they aren't the same thing. Both must be licensed to sell real estate, but there are some important distinctions. Not every real estate agent is a Realtor.

What's the Difference Between a Realtor and an Agent?

 Realtors Real Estate Agents 
Must pass agent licensing requirements in their state Must pass agent licensing requirements in their state
Must additionally pass the NAR Code of Ethics course Aren't subject to additional requirements
Are members of the National Association of Realtors members Are not NAR members

A real estate agent has obtained a state license to assist consumers in buying or selling properties. Realtors are agents who have gone one step further—they've also become members of the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Requirements for Realtors

A Realtor can be a real estate agent, a broker-associate, a managing broker, or an exclusive buyer's agent, and this is just the beginning of the list. What sets them apart is that they must subscribe to the Realtor Code of Ethics for membership, and this includes 17 separate articles that contain various underlying Standards of Practice.

The NAR is the largest trade association in the U.S., and "Realtor" is actually a trademarked term.

The NAR Code of Ethics

The NAR Code of Ethics was adopted in 1913 and is strictly enforced by local real estate boards. It's not just a bunch of rules that agents swear to uphold and adhere to because their brokers made them join the Association. The standards are much more restrictive and confining than the state guidelines that govern agents.

There's no evidence that all Realtors are morally or ethically "better" than unaffiliated real estate agents, but the Code of Ethics is an attempt by the industry to regulate them. But, even non-NAR "real estate agents" are held to the same legal standard.

The 17 Articles

Each of the 17 Articles carries weight, but one article—the first—stands above the rest. It's the basis for the way a Realtor must operate. It doesn't state that a Realtor must be fair to all parties, such as a listing agent when dealing as a buyer's agent, but rather that a Realtor must be honest.

A Realtor must pledge to put the interests of their clients above their own.

These are the 17 standards that a Realtor must promise to uphold:

  1. Put the interests of buyers and sellers ahead of their own and treat all parties honestly.
  2. Refrain from exaggerating, misrepresenting, or concealing material facts about a property. Investigate and disclose when situations reasonably warrant it.
  3. Cooperate with other brokers/agents when it's in the best interests of the client to do so.
  4. Disclose if they represent family members who own or are about to buy real estate, or if they themselves are a principal in a real estate transaction.
  5. Avoid providing professional services in a transaction where the agent has a present or contemplated interest without disclosing that interest.
  6. Do not collect any commissions without the seller's knowledge, nor accept fees from a third party without the seller's express consent.
  7. Refuse fees from more than one party without all parties' informed consent.
  8. Do not comingle client funds with their own money.
  9. Attempt to ensure that all written documents are easy to understand and make sure everyone has a copy of anything they signed.
  10. Do not discriminate in any fashion or for any reason on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin.
  11. Be competent to conform to standards of practice and refuse to provide services for which they are unqualified.
  12. Engage in truth in advertising and marketing.
  13. Do not practice law unless the agent is also a lawyer.
  14. Cooperate if charges are brought against them and present all evidence as requested.
  15. Agree to not "bad mouth" competition, and agree to not file unfounded ethics complaints.
  16. Do not solicit another Realtor's client, nor interfere in a contractual relationship.
  17. Submit matters to arbitration for settlement rather than seek legal remedies in the court system.

Requirements for Agents

Real estate agents must meet certain age and education requirements in the state where they want to work, although these aren't usually stringent. For example, a four-year college degree is rarely or ever required.

Agents must then attend state-approved education courses and apply for and pass the state's licensing exam. They can then apply for a real estate license. Some states have ongoing certification requirements.

A Realtor must meet all these standards, but must additionally pass a course on the NAR Code of Ethics and do so again every four years to maintain certification.

The Bottom Line

The National Association of Realtors was founded in 1908 and its members numbered more than 1.5 million as of May 2021. If an agent isn't a member, it's often because they don't do enough business to justify the expense of membership.