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A real estate agent is a professional who helps people buy and sell properties. But there's more to it than that. Here's a primer on what real estate agents are (and aren't) and the different roles agents can take on in a real estate transaction.
What is a real estate agent?
Real estate agents are licensed professionals who facilitate real estate transactions between buyers and sellers. In a transaction, the agent representing the buyer is — no surprise here — the buyer's agent, while the seller's agent is often referred to as the listing agent. There are commercial as well as residential real estate agents; to buy or sell a home, you'll go with the latter.
Real estate agents on both sides of the transaction earn money through a commission, which is generally paid by the seller. Each agent's commission is a percentage of the total sale price, with the combined commission generally totaling 5% or 6%.
Real estate agents must be state licensed. In order to receive a license, agents generally undergo training and pass an exam. Continuing education is often required to maintain an active license. To verify that an agent is currently licensed, check your state real estate commission's website. You can also search the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials database website.
Agents may have additional certifications or accreditations that can be helpful when buying or selling certain properties. For example, if you're buying a condo, you might look for an agent who's a Certified Condominium Specialist. Someone who knows your area's developments and has experience with condo transactions may be an asset.
Realtor vs. real estate agent
People often use the terms real estate agent and Realtor interchangeably, but that's sort of like saying Band-Aid when you mean adhesive bandage. Not all bandages are Band-Aids, and not all real estate agents are Realtors. (And yes, Realtor is a licensed trademark.)
A Realtor is a licensed real estate agent who is also a member of the National Association of Realtors. NAR is the largest trade association in the U.S., so many real estate agents are Realtors. Realtors are expected to adhere to NAR's standards and code of ethics, and they must participate in regular training to maintain their status.
NAR isn't the only trade association for agents. In addition to state and local associations, there are other national associations, including the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. NAREB, which emphasizes social justice and housing equality, designates its members as Realtists.
Real estate agent vs. broker
Real estate brokers are agents who've undergone more training and acquired additional licensing. Agents must work under a broker, but brokers may work independently or supervise real estate agents within a brokerage. With the brokerage model, the broker receives a portion of each agent's commission.
If you're interviewing a potential agent who is a real estate broker, ask whether you'll be working directly with them or be handed off to an agent within their brokerage. You may not want to go after a big-name broker only to find you'll mostly be working with their assistant.
You might also hear about discount real estate brokers. These are generally larger brokerage networks that connect home sellers with agents willing to take a lower commission. While it may cost less to work with a discount broker, there are trade-offs, as these brokers might not provide all the services a listing agent typically would.
What all real estate agents do
Whether you're on the buying or the selling side of the transaction, your real estate agent will assist with several parts of the process.
Here's what you can expect any real estate agent to do:
Have deep knowledge of the area. This can include property values and comparable home sales, but also information on schools, neighborhoods and more.
Understand the process. The nuts and bolts of buying and selling are a given, but your agent should also know local and state real estate laws and common practices. They'll tip you off on who and what you'll need and when you'll need it.
Answer all of your questions. If it's your first time buying — or selling — you're likely to come across terms you don't recognize and tasks that seem baffling. What's the difference between pending and contingent? Why do you need title insurance? How thoroughly do you need to fill out disclosure forms? Your agent should be able to confidently and competently explain it all.
Take care of the paperwork. In some cases, your agent might be the one who draws up the contract. Even when that's not the case, an agent will usually review every document in the transaction. After you've signed off, the agent will submit the paperwork on your behalf.
Keep lines of communication open. Buyers and sellers seldom meet (which is probably for the best), and your agent is your go-between. They will be in touch with the agent on the other side of the transaction and once an offer has been accepted, they will guide you through any negotiations. Your agent will also keep you (and the other parties) up to speed on where the process stands. Closing on a home can take a while, and it's easy to get antsy if you aren't sure what's going on.
Provide support. Buying or selling a home is stressful, and a good agent will be helpful and compassionate. Whether you need a pep talk, a reality check or a shoulder to cry on, your agent should be there for you.
One more thing: Your agent should consistently represent your interests in the transaction. After all, getting the best price means two very different things depending on whether you're the home seller or the buyer. A single agent representing both sides is known as dual agency, and it's illegal in some states. More broadly, if your agent has any stake in the transaction (for example, if the property owner is a relative), they should disclose that to you.
What buyer's agents do
A buyer's real estate agent helps their clients buy homes. Agents can be exclusive buyer's agents, but it's common to work with both buyers and sellers. Someone who's selling their current house and buying a new one will usually retain their listing agent as their buyer's agent. This isn't considered dual agency, because the home sale and the home purchase are two separate transactions.
Buyer's agents will:
Listen to your likes and dislikes. Knowing what's a must-have and what's negotiable will help them better assess which homes on the market will interest you. You'll also want to be clear with your agent on your price range — both your ideal price and your absolute maximum.
Find potential homes. Your agent should uncover new listings for you, but in an age where scrolling through real estate apps is a common pastime, you'll likely send your agent listings, too. They can help here by looking at the property in the Multiple Listing Service — or MLS — where, as a licensed agent, they'll be able to see information that's unavailable to the public. This can include details about potential issues with the home or conditions of the sale.
Talk to listing agents. Your buyer's agent will reach out to listing agents to get answers to your questions about properties and set up in-person showings. In some cases, sellers may be so bold as to ask for a copy of your mortgage preapproval, and your agent will deal with these types of requests.
Provide referrals. There can be a surprising number of parties involved in a home sale. While it's best to find your own home inspector, for example, your agent should be able to give you referrals as needed.
Generate and submit offers. When you see a home you love, your agent will work with you to craft a bid and submit your offer to the listing agent. A good buyer's agent should know what local sellers expect and will be able to discuss contingencies and other considerations with you.
One more important thing to know about buyer's agents: While you will sign a contract to work with them, their commission will be paid by the home seller.
What listing agents do
When you're ready to sell your home, you'll turn to a listing agent. Assuming you're moving into a new place, it's fairly standard for the listing agent who sells your home to be your buyer's agent as well. As the seller, you're on the hook for both agents' commissions on your home sale, so you'll want to be sure your listing agent is up to par.
Listing agents handle many of the same to-do lists as buyer's agents, but there are a few tasks that are specific to seller's agents:
Help price your home. A listing agent will look over your property in detail, ask about repairs and upgrades and show you examples of comparable properties in order to properly price your home.
Make presale prep suggestions. In order to get your home the best price, your agent may recommend a few adjustments. That could include taking care of repairs that will turn up on a home inspection, decluttering or depersonalizing the space, or even home staging.
Market your home. A solid listing agent will get professional photography of your home and write up a strong listing for the MLS. Additional marketing may include advertisements, open houses or simply networking with other agents.
Vet potential buyers. These days, it's not just separating the lookie-loos from the folks who actually plan to buy. Sellers can ask to see a preapproval or other proof of funds in order for a buyer to see a home in person. The listing agent will talk with buyer's agents to assess their clients' seriousness and set up in-person tours.
Guide you through multiple offers. Having multiple offers on your home is exciting, but it can also be stressful. Your agent should help you determine which is best for you. Depending on your needs, it might not be the highest dollar amount or a cash offer — certain contingencies or a rent-back deal might make a lower offer more compelling.
Your listing agent will also, of course, be on your side throughout negotiations. They'll double-check paperwork that comes through, communicate with the buyer's agent and other parties to the sale, and generally stay on top of things through to closing day.