The Difference Between a Realtor and Real Estate Agent (and How to Choose the Right One)


There are tons of things you can do on your own, without professional help: This website is full of them. One thing you should not try to do by yourself, though—especially as a newbie—is buy or sell a home. There’s a lot of money on the line here and a lot of things you, a regular person, do not know about this process and are not authorized to do. Selecting a Realtor or real estate agent is a task you can handle on your own, and it’s arguably one of the most important parts—but what’s the difference between them and what do they actually do for you?

What is the difference between a Realtor and a real estate agent?

The chief differences between Realtors and real estate agents, according to Clare Trapasso, executive news editor of Realtor.com, are these: “A real estate agent has earned a professional license to buy, sell, and rent real estate. To receive a license, they must have received training and pass a licensing exam. A Realtor is a real estate agent or other real estate professional who is a member of the National Association of Realtors. They must adhere to the standards and codes of ethics of the organization.”

To get into the NAR, a real estate agent has to have a valid license and a great record. Once in, they have to adhere to that ethical code, but beyond the assurances that can give buyers and sellers, there’s also an element of clout to being involved with the organization. Don’t worry, though: A real estate agent who isn’t in the NAR can still be great. In fact, they have to be, if they ever want to become a Realtor.

You should focus on the specialty you’d like your agent to have. Listing agents help you list a home; buying agents help you look for properties; and rental agents can help you find a rental unit. According to Zillow, 85% of sellers say that an agent’s ability to find interested buyers was very or extremely valuable to them while 80% said the agent’s ability to guide them through the selling process was. Dealings in contract negotiations also appealed to 80% of sellers.

Decide what you want from a real estate agent

You have to be certain not only of what you want to achieve—buying or selling a home—but all the details around that, though they may be subject to change. You also have to go into the search for an agent with a list of what you’re looking for in a potential partner in this endeavor. Do you prefer phone calls to emails? Do you want to meet face to face and go to a bunch of showings, or do you want to be able to rely on this person to select the ones that are most appropriate for you to see?

Having a strong sense of what you want is important, but you also need to be open to suggestions from an agent. They might see something you don’t in your plan. They could find a home that’s perfect for you, but not in the neighborhood you selected. They could have experiences that give them insight into why something on your “must have” list isn’t such a great idea for you or your family. You never know and it doesn’t hurt to hear them out, but having a predetermined list of what you do want is a key starting point.

Selecting the right real estate agent

Selecting the right person to work with is key. As Trapasso points out, they could be helping you with the biggest purchase or sale of your life, so it’s important that you trust them.

There are quite a few agents out there, and if you live in a densely populated area, there will be a ton around you. Start by getting some recommendations from family and friends, suggests Trapasso, and make sure you ask how their experience was, whether the agent offered them good advice, and whether they specialize in the area you’re looking at buying or selling in. Call a few and have some chats. Go into the conversation armed with knowledge. Explain that you’re looking to sell your home or where you’re hoping to buy one, what you’ll use the property for, whether you’ve already been pre-approved for a mortgage, and what you’re looking to make or spend. Keep these questions at the forefront of the conversation:

  • What areas and home price tiers does the agent specialize in?

  • How long have they been an agent?

  • How many sales have they had in the last few years?

  • Do they have a real estate network with pros like attorneys, inspectors, and others they can recommend?

  • What kind of marketing do they provide for sellers?

  • Do they stage homes for sellers and will your home be staged?

  • What is their fee and how do they take payment?

Keep your own personal goals in mind here, too. Trapasso points out that not every agent will be suited to every need. For instance, “if they specialize in selling foreclosed properties to investors, they may not be the best fit for a buyer hoping to trade up into a nicer, larger home.”

“You want to select someone who is going to work for you and fit your needs, not try to sell you anything because they’re making a commission,” cautions Danny Gonzalez, a real estate investor with Danny Builds Homes, LLC. “You also want to go with an agency that’s been around for a while and is credible.”

Ultimately, after a chat, you should assess how you got along with the agent, concludes Trapasso. Feel out if it seemed like they respected your budget and needs or just wanted to make a quick sale. Whether or not “they have your best interests at heart” is “so important,” so take your time choosing.

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