• To become a real estate agent, you’ll need to take classes, pass an exam, and renew your license every two to four years.
  • As a real estate agent, you’ll help clients compare properties, buy or sell property, and maintain a portfolio of properties for sale.
  • Early on, real estate agents often work for brokerages, with some taking jobs at national firms. However, the majority of real estate agents are self-employed.
  • This article is for anyone looking to become a real estate agent.

As of late 2020, there were 106,584 real estate brokerages in the United States, according to census data. And as of early 2022, rents and mortgage rates are surging. When you combine these facts, you’re looking at a competitive market where prospective homebuyers, landlords and renters need all the help they can get. This set of conditions might pique your interest in becoming a real estate agent. Below, you’ll learn how to do exactly that.

Becoming a real estate agent

Though the licenses for real estate agents and brokers differ, the basic requirements for each are the same. Here’s what you need to know.

Real estate agent, broker, and Realtor qualifications and exams

In the U.S., almost every state requires that agents and brokers be at least 18 years of age and possess a high school diploma or equivalent, pass a written exam, and complete a certain number of hours of real estate courses. Some states have additional requirements, and most licenses are not transferable between states.

Each state has its own body that administers real estate exams. In Pennsylvania, for example, you would schedule your real estate exam via the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission. You can find exam details through this body so you can put yourself in the best possible position to obtain your license.

Although many people use the terms “real estate agent” and “Realtor” interchangeably, they’re not the same. The latter applies solely to agents with special licensure that binds them to certain ethical and legal practices.

Agents who have several years of experience selling properties and who complete additional training courses can obtain broker’s licenses. In some states, brokers may substitute a bachelor’s degree in place of industry experience.

You can also opt to become a Realtor, which officializes your membership with the National Association of Realtors (NAR). As a Realtor, you’re bound to the NAR’s Code of Ethics. This distinction may help potential clients feel more secure when choosing to use your services. Realtors can also access exclusive real estate market intelligence, business tools, educational opportunities and more.

Taking real estate classes

Because of the popularity of this career, many colleges and universities now offer courses in real estate, as well as certificate programs. Some institutions even have associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in real estate. You can also take online courses from anywhere at any time through platforms such as Real Estate Express and 360training.

You can take real estate classes online from home as well as on a traditional university campus.

Maintaining your real estate license

Most states in the United States require that licenses for brokers and agents be renewed every two to four years, and many states also require real estate professionals to attend continuing education classes throughout their careers. For a comprehensive list of the requirements for sales agents and brokers by state, visit the Real Estate Library or the National Association of Realtors website.

Working with a firm

Once you’ve obtained your real estate license, you’ll likely fare best if you start your career as part of a brokerage firm. Though you could theoretically start your own real estate business, doing so might not be a career risk worth taking, at least in the beginning. Clients may hesitate to trust real estate professionals who lack a successful track record or a trustworthy supervisor. When you join a firm, you get the latter and start building the former. 

At a firm, you’ll work under a state-licensed supervising broker who keeps you abreast of legal and ethical standards. You can also forget about the stress of lead generation that comes with flying solo – successful brokerages always have plentiful leads.

In some cases, working for a firm means you can forgo certain business expenses. After all, brokerages have all the necessary infrastructure ready to go. On the other hand, in some cases, you might need to pay the firm ongoing fees for a desk, website, marketing and more. In almost all cases, you’ll earn solely commission with no salary under this arrangement. 

What real estate agents do

Those pursuing a career in real estate sales typically choose to become licensed as either a broker or a sales agent. The two jobs are similar in their responsibilities, but brokers typically have more experience in the industry than agents and are licensed to manage their own real estate businesses.

Sales agents must work with a broker, and many agents become brokers after gaining several years of experience and obtaining a broker’s license. The term Realtor identifies a real estate agent who is a member of the National Association of Realtors.

For both brokers and agents, the demands of the job are as broad as the sales process itself. People hire real estate professionals because the process of buying, selling and renting property is nuanced and time-consuming. Brokers and agents can help make sure that no part of the process is overlooked.

The job of a broker or an agent begins with the solicitation of potential clients and does not end until a property is bought or sold and all terms of the purchase contract are met. Agents and brokers are responsible for advising clients on different aspects of local markets, helping clients compare properties, and mediating negotiations between buyers and sellers. They are also responsible for keeping up-to-date and detailed portfolios of properties for sale, promoting properties with open houses and listing services, and preparing documents such as deeds and purchase agreements.

Real estate professionals must be knowledgeable about the market in which they are working, with a well-rounded understanding of quality-of-life factors such as area crime rates, nearby school systems, and access to services such as public transportation, hospitals, and grocery stores. It is also important for those in this line of work to stay abreast of trends in financing and the best mortgage options, government programs, zoning regulations and fair housing laws.

Because trends and laws in the real estate industry are continually changing, many states require that brokers and agents participate in ongoing educational programs to maintain their licenses.

Where real estate agents work

Some 58% of real estate brokers were self-employed as of 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, with others employed at real estate firms. Sales agents, who must work for brokers, typically find employment with a brokerage, leasing office or other real estate establishment. Because of the vast differences in real estate markets in various areas, workplaces in this industry can range from one-person businesses to large firms with numerous branch offices.

Some brokers have franchise agreements with national or regional real estate companies in which the broker pays a fee to be affiliated with a widely known real estate organization, such as Century 21, Coldwell Banker or Sotheby’s.

Regardless of where a broker or agent works, they typically spend much of the workday away from the office, scouting and showing properties or holding meetings with clients. Sales agents who are new to the industry may also spend a good deal of time at networking events in order to build a reputation within their communities.

Real estate professionals notoriously work long, irregular hours, as they must be available to clients on weekends as well as after business hours. Many agents and brokers work more than the typical 40-hour workweek, though some keep part-time real estate careers and work at other jobs as well.

Brokers and agents earn most of their income through commissions on sales, the rates of which depend on the type and value of property sold. Real estate incomes depend on the area in which you choose to work, the experience you have in the industry, and how motivated you are to sell. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median pay earned by real estate brokers was $60,370 annually as of 2020. Sales agents earned $49,040 on average in that same year.

Kiely Kuligowski contributed to the writing and research in this article.

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