What Makes a Realtor Different From an Agent?

real estate agent standing outside home with new homeowners giving them the key

Big Stock Photo

Some people think that all real estate agents are "realtors," calling agents by that name generically without realizing that not every agent can legally use the title. A career in real estate is complicated enough, and many major brokerages require that agents become a realtor but it is not legally required.

A realtor is a real estate agent or affiliated real estate professional who is a member of the National Association of Realtors, called NAR for short. Realtors are located in all parts of the world. If you ask a realtor what sets that individual apart from a regular real estate agent, that agent will point to being held to a higher standard. That higher standard is called the Realtor Code of Ethics. 

Realtor Code of Ethics

Way back in the early 1900s, agents were considered peddlers, if you can believe that. We have come a long way. When agents become realtors they must agree to conduct their business in a way that adheres to the NAR's Code of Ethics. The realtor's code covers ethical requirements that deal with all aspects of the job, from working with consumers and fellow agents to writing truthful advertising.

Multiple Listing Services

Local groups of agents who have banded together in order to share listings more effectively are called Multiple Listing Services, or MLS for short. Most of those groups are affiliated with their state and national realtor associations and typically require all MLS agents to become members of both of those groups.

Agents pay dues to their state and local realtor organizations. They also pay fees to become and maintain membership of their local MLS.

Realtors Accountable for Their Actions

Realtors can file complaints against each other and the organization accepts complaints from consumers. Complaints can affect membership status and fines can be levied against agents who are found guilty of wrongdoing by a multi-member panel of their peers.

The organization does not have the ability to suspend a real estate licenses -- that action can only be accomplished by the real estate licensing commission that granted it. Licenses in the US are granted by each state.

Realtors are not the only individuals who can file a complaint against a realtor at their local Board of Realtors. The public can also file a complaint with the Board. Complaints are first assessed by a Grievance Committee made up of volunteers. This group does not establish whether the complaint is valid or true. The Grievance Committee determines if the facts as stated could possibly be true, would there be a violation of the Code of Ethics? If the answer is yes, then a date for a hearing is established.

A complaint is generally based on a possible violation of one or more of the Articles from the Code of Ethics. During the hearing, the realtor can obtain legal counsel and will be given an opportunity to present the realtor's side of events. The verdict is final. If the realtor is found guilty, punishment can include a temporary or permanent revocation of membership benefits such as access to MLS, for example, a monetary fine, a requirement for more education or a combination of all those things.

 Realtor Educational Requirements

All licensed agents are required to take continuing education courses approved by their state licensing boards. To retain membership in the NAR, realtors are required to take additional continuing-ed classes, often focusing on ethical work habits and other consumer protection topics. Realtors are required to complete an ethics course every four years.

 Realtor Membership Benefits

  • Educational materials at state and national NAR websites
  • Full-color magazines in print and online with news and educational content
  • Representatives who lobby Congress for Realtor legislation (political action is huge)
  • Discounts on equipment and other helpful products and services
  • Training and educational opportunities, including affiliations with special designation programs
  • Annual state and national conventions
  • Legal hotline assistance
  • Legal document access

Consumers and real estate agents can learn more about what it means to be a realtor on the NAR's website.