Pursuing a career in real estate offers freedom and growth potential while having few training or education requirements.
Real estate agents help clients buy, sell, or rent properties. They work with larger brokers, but often generate their own leads. Professional freedom makes this an ideal career for self-motivated people with strong communication skills.
Real estate agents are professionals who work in the sale and transfer of land, while REALTORS® are official members of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR). This guide covers professional responsibilities and education requirements for both aspiring real estate agents and REALTORS®. It details how to become a real estate agent, discusses available roles in the field, and explores salary information.
Choose Your Specialization
The first step in learning how to become a REALTOR® is understanding the various roles and titles associated with the field. Each concentration area serves a different function in buying or selling real estate. Knowing more about each role can help candidates choose a specialization that matches their interests.
Real Estate Agent
Professionals with this title typically work on behalf of a broker, who employs them. They are essentially sales agents, tasked with finding suitable commercial or residential properties for clients. They also finalize transactions, handle paperwork, and act as a liaison between property buyers and property sellers.
REALTORS® fulfill similar responsibilities as real estate agents, but they hold certification from the National Association of REALTORS® — a trade organization that protects their interests. In essence, all REALTORS® are real estate agents, but not all real estate agents are REALTORS®.
Real Estate Broker
Unlike real estate agents, real estate brokers own and manage their own businesses. They often employ qualified real estate agents and usually have years of professional experience. They need additional licensure and typically complete additional training in business management.
Managing brokers oversee the daily operations of large real estate firms in the commercial sector. They manage staff and work to obtain new clients through referrals. They usually have advanced management skills, along with significant real estate experience as agents or REALTORS®.
Associate brokers are entry-level brokers who work for more experienced firms, which hold or sponsor their licenses. They take on more responsibilities than real estate agents, but still need additional supervision not required for brokers with more senior titles.
Real estate agents working for buyers focus on assisting prospective home or property owners. They specialize in the acquisition side of transactions. This usually includes helping buyers locate properties that meet their needs and fit specified budget requirements, handling paperwork, and coordinating inspections.
Listing agents work on the seller side of real estate transactions. Their responsibilities include putting new properties on the market and crafting listing advertisements. They also show properties, coordinate property inspections, and engage in negotiations during the sales process.
Dual agents assume the responsibilities of both buyer and listing agent within the same transaction. They represent the interests of the seller and the new property owner, which can shorten the negotiation process and simplify accrued commission fees.
These real estate professionals complete the administrative tasks involved in buying or selling property. They review and submit documentation, manage communications between parties, and oversee the closing process. They may also coordinate scheduling and negotiations.
Decide Where You Want to Work
Real estate agents work in many different settings and industries under a variety of roles and professional titles. Where you work can have a big impact on salary rate, career opportunities, and the day-to-day work experience.
Real estate agents usually cannot work alone: Most state laws and regulations require that they work for larger brokerages. This requirement guarantees quality and protects consumers. Real estate agents can still own or establish their own brokerages, but that requires more time, investment, and experience in the field.
Most real estate agents work for brokerages on a contract basis. They work in offices, but often spend their days traveling to properties, meeting clients, and engaging in negotiations. Depending on their interests, agents may work for franchises or independent brokers that specialize in buying or listing specific types of property.
- Commercial Real Estate: Commercial real estate agents focus on buying, locating, and selling properties for businesses and organizations. Unlike homes or apartments, these properties are zoned for commercial use, and often have to meet more stringent regulations. While this often includes city properties, it can also include developmental or agricultural properties, such as those used for farming or mining.
- Residential Real Estate: "Residential" refers to land and property developed for the purpose of living and accommodations. Real estate agents in this arena generally work with buyers, renters, and landlords, selling single-family homes, apartment structures, condominiums, and other living properties.
Evaluate Your Skills
Taking stock of your skills and aptitudes can help you determine if a career in real estate is right for you. This profession relies heavily on personal interfacing, so successful real estate agents need exceptional social and communication skills. This helps agents understand client needs and successfully navigate negotiations. Additional skills often used in real estate include:
- Time management
- Critical thinking
- Active listening
- Mathematics and quantitative reasoning
Soft skills typically aren't assessed in state real estate exams, but they can make a significant difference in career success.
Research Your Salary Potential
According to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, real estate agent salary rates and job growth numbers remain strong. The median annual wage for real estate agents reached $50,730 in 2019 — more than 25% higher than the national average for all occupations. The job outlook also remains consistent with nationwide trends. However, salary and employment numbers can vary depending on location and regional demand.
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How Do Real Estate Agents Make Money?
Like other sales professionals, REALTORS® often work on commission, which makes answering questions like "how much do real estate agents make?" a bit complicated. Working on commission means agents receive a portion of the payments made to their brokerages. Salary agreements vary, but most agents earn the majority of their income through commissions.
Commission rates also vary. Some firms charge a flat rate for their agents' services, but most charge a percentage of the property's final selling price. That commission rate is then divided between the brokerage and the agent who facilitated the transaction. Most real estate agents negotiate their portion of commissions with a broker through a contract agreement. They then work to generate their own leads with backing from the brokerage.
Determine if You Should Pursue a Degree
Most real estate agents do not need a degree to obtain their licensing credentials. However, earning a formal degree can give you a leg up on the competition, especially in areas or industries with high demand. The sections below explore degree options suited to real estate professionals.
Students earn associate degrees from public colleges, universities, and two-year institutions. While not as comprehensive or exhaustive as other credentials, associate degrees can lay a solid foundation for successful, long-term work in real estate. Associate degrees fulfill general education requirements and conclude with focused instruction in specific disciplines.
Some schools offer associate degrees in real estate or related subjects, but many aspiring brokers and agents opt to study related disciplines instead, building additional skills and expertise. Popular majors include business, management, accounting, and economics. This route broadens job prospects.
Most learners complete requirements and graduate with associate degrees within two years, though some complete the program in less time, depending on their school, enrollment status, and outside commitments.
Bachelor's degrees offer a more intensive experience than a two-year program, going deeper on major-specific subjects. They are offered by four-year colleges and universities. This credential typically qualifies degree-seekers for entry-level employment and future career advancement.
Many learners interested in real estate choose this path, earning a bachelor's degree in real estate, while others study business administration, finance, sales, or another closely related discipline. Undergraduate programs in these areas explore property regulations and laws while also cultivating the communication and negotiation skills required for real estate work.
Candidates should expect to spend about four years earning their bachelor's degrees, though some schools offer reduced or accelerated timeframes.
Master's degrees offer more advanced and specialized training, building upon prior undergraduate study and providing more specialized focused. Most degree-seekers pursue this path to make a career change or to obtain extra qualifications required for more senior roles.
Earning a master's degree as a real estate professional is well suited to those interested in working as managing brokers, responsible for subordinates. Requirements vary by employer, but many prefer leadership candidates with a background in business or management.
Education programs at this level typically last two years and require a bachelor's degree to apply. Some large real estate firms may provide incentives or financial aid opportunities for employees seeking master's degrees.
Obtain a Real Estate License
Each real estate agent must hold a valid license, regardless of their role or title. A license validates an agent's training and background and authorizes them for legal work in the field. This process happens at the state level. Beware any entity offering licensure without state affiliation. Some reputable bodies, like the National Association of REALTORS®, offer additional credentials, but they do not replace a license issued by state regulators.
Research Your State's Eligibility Requirements
Start by learning your state's requirements. These requirements vary, but most follow a similar process, administered by a real estate department or licensing board. In California, for example, the Department of Real Estate oversees the licensure process and provides a list of applicable requirements.
Enroll in a Pre-Licensing Course
Most licensing boards do not ask for formal degrees, but do require course prerequisites. Licensees in California, for example, must complete college-level courses in real estate principles, real estate practice, and an additional area of competency, like finance, appraisals, or business law. Most accredited universities offer classes like these on a regular basis.
Take the Real Estate Exam
Candidates who meet all prerequisites and eligibility requirements can sit for their state's real estate exam. Most states require specific exams, depending on your chosen title. Aspiring brokers generally take a longer, more comprehensive exam, while real estate agents take shorter, more limited exams. Most licensing boards administer these exams in person.
Activate Your License
Once you pass the appropriate exam, you can receive your real estate license. Most candidates receive an application for licensure in the mail once they've passed the exam. They must complete the application and return it, along with fingerprints and any applicable fees. In most states, real estate professionals must renew their licenses every few years.
Join a Brokerage
While some professionals open their own brokerages, most real estate agents start by joining reputable brokerages, where they can develop experience, build a reputation, and gain clients. Current regulations prohibit real estate agents from selling property on their own, for quality assurance reasons, so they must work with a brokerage.
Additional Real Estate Designations
Licensed real estate agents can also pursue additional credentials or designations. These certifications demonstrate specializations and support career advancement by expanding your skillset and broadening your professional reach. The National Association of REALTORS® maintains a running list of popular options, including certificates in land consulting, commercial investment, and brokerage management.
Earning an additional designation usually requires completing a course sequence and passing an exam with a score of 80% or higher. Exam length, course requirements, and pricing vary. NAR offers breakdowns for each available certificate.
Ask An Expert
Christina McCaffrey has been a REALTOR® since 2000. At the start of her career, she worked for two large brokerage firms. In 2015, Christina opened her own boutique real estate firm: Triangle Trusted Realty. The company serves clients in the greater Research Triangle area of North Carolina. These days, she works with three other REALTORS® and her son, Eric. They help clients buy or sell property around Raleigh, North Carolina.
How did you become involved in real estate? Were you always interested in the industry?
I have always loved architecture and decor. I bought my first home — a small condo when I was 23 — because I loved the idea of homeownership. When I was a young mom, I would frequently drag my son to open houses so we could get a peek inside homes on the market, and I was always imagining ways to help them sell quicker or present them to look better.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I was home recovering from an injury when a friend called to ask me to help her find a REALTOR®. She was working during the day and needed help with the search.
By the end of two days of calling, I realized that a lot of the local agents were not answering their phone calls. Others I spoke to were dismissive. I thought, "wow, in our market, if you brought genuine sales skills into this business, you'd be set." It took me 10 calls and two days to finally find someone with a great personality and a helpful spirit.
Over the next few months, the search for a good agent nagged at me. I wondered if it was time to make the leap into real estate sales. I was working as the director of sales and marketing for a retirement company at the time, so I was in a rewarding job that paid well. The thought of giving up that regular salary was scary.
Soon thereafter, the company asked me to take a new position. My promotion would mean that I would have to travel across the country to train other salespeople. I was leery about doing that because I had a young son at home. After a lot of reflection, I decided that now was the time to make the move to real estate. I called the agent who I had recommended to my friend and asked her for input.
Within six months of trying to help my friend find a REALTOR®, I was working as a marketing person for a local real estate agent and taking courses to get my license. I haven't looked back once.
Years later, my son even joined me — I guess those open houses were good training.
Did you get a degree in real estate or related to real estate? If so, do you think a degree is valuable in getting started or advancing in the field?
I have a degree in psychology with a minor in marketing. I am confident that my degree was helpful to me because it is the study of how people think, and that is always useful. However, if you ask me if a college degree is necessary for this business, I would have to say that it is definitely not a requirement.
I know plenty of people who have degrees and fail in the real estate industry. On the other hand, I also know plenty who avoided college and still managed to build a fabulous real estate business. Success in this field is driven by the ability to connect, communicate, and solve problems.
What I will say is that the skills you learned about human interaction will be very useful when you start a career in real estate. If you learned them while you played on a team, in another job, or even as part of a family, it will be helpful. This is a people business above all else.
When starting out, how did you decide where to specialize?
My first role in the real estate business was as a marketing specialist, which means I helped make houses look appealing to buyers and other agents. So, my first introduction to the business was learning how to advertise real estate.
I got my license in 2000, and I immediately became a buyer's agent for the REALTOR® who had hired me to do marketing. I never gave up the love of marketing homes, so from the first six months, I split time between buyer agency duties and marketing duties for her brand. Eventually, I moved to another brokerage and started my independent route to build my own business.
From the start, I split my business almost equally between buyers and sellers. That way, I could keep an eye on what buyers are looking for and use that knowledge when I marketed homes that I was listing.
How did you work your way up to an owner of a boutique real estate firm? Tell us about your trajectory.
I started my career as a salesperson and then became a broker. Over the years, I would fill in when the broker was on vacation or out of the office. I helped train other agents where I could. I was nervous about leaving to start my own business, but over time, I gained confidence.
My clients helped me to realize that I could create a firm because they kept telling me that they already thought everyone I recommended or brought into the process was part of my team already.
In the beginning, I looked at opening a franchise office — I had worked for a franchise for most of my career — but eventually, I made the decision to go with my own boutique option.
More than once, I heard my clients say that they had hired me, not the name of the company. That helped make my decision to branch out to make my own firm. The company I founded is called Triangle Trusted Realty. We are a group of REALTORS® with a reputation for being trustworthy and honest. It is what sets us apart, so we named the firm after the values.
If someone is unsure whether or not becoming a real estate agent is the right path for them, what advice would you give them?
If you are unsure about whether or not real estate is the right option for you, it's probably because you haven't had enough exposure to the career. Take some time to think about what the hesitation is. You can learn and answer a lot of your questions if you take the time to talk to someone who has experience in the business. They can provide insight into the process and the day-to-day activities in the industry.
One thing that is scary to everyone is the fact that the business is 100% commission-based. The way to address this issue is to recognize that you are creating your own business. As a new agent, it would be best if you could set aside at least a few months of financial reserves to give yourself time to ramp up.
Again, the best way to get information is to talk to an agent who is active in the business. Ask them about their days and ask them about what obstacles they see. Do some research before you make any decisions. Whatever you do, don't rely on what you see on HGTV or in the media. The media's ideas about what real estate agents do are not always based on reality.
What misconceptions do you think people have about being a real estate agent?
Real estate agents work in the service industry. Our clients are under stress, and there's a lot on the line. Good REALTORS® spend most of their time negotiating, marketing, assisting, and problem-solving for their clients.
Frequently, you see that people assume REALTORS® just put on cute clothes, open doors, and smile — there's nothing further from the truth. Yes, we need to stay upbeat, but we also need to make sure that our client's needs are covered. A smiling face without information is useless when things go awry. Honesty, knowledge, and a commitment to your clients will help you prevail in the industry.
The other misconception that people have is that real estate agents hate each other and spend time warring with each other. I don't know about other parts of the country, but here in the Triangle Area, that doesn't fly.
The truth is, we sell each other's properties and we work together. Yesterday, I spent twenty minutes on the phone with a local agent from another firm. She was asking for advice on how to make her listing look great, and I was happy to offer suggestions. She doesn't work for me, but I respect her and I am happy to give advice. I'm sure she would do the same.
Of course, there's a little bit of competition between offices or among agents, but in reality, we sell each other's inventory, so we are friendly to one another and respect those who play with dignity. If you hear an agent complaining about some other agent or another office, then you should run. That's a big sign that they're either insecure or are missing skills.
What should prospective real estate agents know about the real estate license process?
Real estate requirements vary according to state. Here in North Carolina, the state has mandated that all licensees must take classes, pass a classroom exam, and then pass a statewide exam. When you get your license, you also need to continue toward a broker's license and complete that within a timely manner. North Carolina has become a "broker only" state.
Before you start to take classes, look into the requirements for the license by contacting your state's Real Estate Commission. Then, once again, talk to an agent or a broker working in the industry. We will be able to give you insight into which instructors are the best and what to concentrate on when you are studying.
Once someone becomes a licensed real estate agent, how do they find a job? Is it common to join a brokerage before becoming licensed? What should real estate agents look for when deciding what kind of brokerage to join?
Although I started working in the industry before I had my license, this is not common. There are not many options for unlicensed assistants or marketing professionals. Your best bet is to get the license and then look for a brokerage that provides additional training, or get a coach so you can make sure that you have someone to help you get your career moving forward quickly.
Do you believe all real estate agents should become REALTORS®? What other designations do you think are valuable?
I am a REALTOR®, and I appreciate that the REALTOR® Association exists and provides the education, backing, and industry standards that it does. I am very happy to be a member.
A real estate agent is licensed by the state and is held to some requirements by law. An agent who becomes a REALTOR® is joining a group that has a higher set of standards and ethics. From what I see, the majority of successful agents are members of the REALTOR® Association because we see the value of becoming a collective voice with stronger ethics.
There are many REALTOR® groups, certifications, and committees available if you want to specialize. Many times, there are local committees for particular groups. For example, if you are a commercial REALTOR®, you can join a group; or if you want to work with international clients, you can also join a local group or committee under the REALTOR® umbrella or in your local area.
Again, there are groups and affiliations for lots of diverse interests, so I'd join the group that addresses some of the issues that I am interested in.
What common mistakes do you see new real estate agents make?
One thing I see is that new agents frequently join the wrong brokerage. They pick the brokerage based on the number of agents or how the office looks. While this seems like it may be a good idea, there's no correlation between the beauty of an office and how your bottom line will be impacted. Join a business where you feel comfortable and you know you'll have support.
The other mistake that new agents make is that they assume that clients will instantaneously just show up, or that leads will be forthcoming from the brokerage firm. Again, this is not true. A REALTOR® has to go out and find clients, wow them, find some more, and repeat.
You can join a real estate team, who will give you leads to work with. However, you will be giving up a lot of commission by going this route. If you want to build your own reputation, it's better to build your own network.
How long did it take you to build up a client base and have a consistent income? What advice would you give real estate agents starting out trying to build their businesses?
I was really lucky because I was able to get clients right away. Friends, neighbors, and people who worked with me in my previous job called me when they were looking for a property. I also devised a plan to reach out to new people every day. My plan has remained constant all these years and it has consistently worked to bring loyal clients.
Again, I've been lucky because I have enjoyed earning a strong income from the beginning, but a lot of that luck came from hard work and a fabulous sales and marketing plan.
If you are a new agent who doesn't have previous sales and marketing experience, it will help if you hire a coach for a month or two to get started. Coaches teach shortcuts and ways to bring in business. Over and over, we hear that agents with this assistance do better over time.
These days, I provide coaching services to real estate agents and other salespeople, and I've seen it help them increase their income quickly. I've helped salespeople figure out better ways to find and connect with clients. They also learn how to be more productive with their time.
If your office doesn't offer a coach to help, then it's definitely worth investing in getting a coach for yourself. Remember: You're building a business and you want to scale up as quickly as possible. Get expert help for a month or two at the start and begin with knowledge so you can propel your business forward.
Any other advice you'd give to aspiring real estate agents?
A real estate agent is a business unto themselves. You will be as successful as you want to be if you focus on the growth and the reputation of your own personal business.
I have loved my career in real estate. I have been doing it for over 20 years now, and I'm always amazed at how much there is to learn and how much fun it is. If you are going into the business because you love people, then I am sure you'll be very successful.
Lastly, here's a quick tip: Remember what I told you about searching for the agent for my friend? I explained that many agents didn't answer their phones, or they were dismissive or rude when they talked to me? The agent who didn't do that — the woman who was warm and welcoming — is the lady who helped me make the decision to come into the business.
She retired to the beach a few years ago after a long and successful career in the area. Follow that example for a quick real estate industry hack. Get used to answering your phone, and try to avoid judgments. It will pay off — I promise.
Join a Professional Organization
- National Association of REALTORS® Founded in 1908 and based in Chicago, IL, this organization serves over 1.4 million members working in real estate and property management. As the largest trade organization in America, the association engages in advocacy, provides educational programs, and gathers research pertinent to the field.
- International Association of Real Estate Professionals This organization supports real estate professionals across the globe through networking opportunities, marketing and sales training, and career advancement initiatives. It hosts an annual conference, gathers recent news, and maintains an active social media presence. It extends additional benefits to registered members.
- American Real Estate Society This association has provided thought leadership and promoted the free exchange of information in real estate for over 30 years. It offers cutting-edge publications, operates a comprehensive career center, and recognizes innovative work in the field through awards and fellowships. It uses a tier-based membership system to accommodate all backgrounds and income levels.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Easy to Become a Real Estate Agent?
Work in real estate involves fewer requirements than similar job sectors. Once prospective agents complete prerequisites, they can proceed to licensure. With few barriers, it is easy to join the field.
Is Becoming a REALTOR® Worth It?
Unlike regular real estate agents, REALTORS® enjoy the backing and support of a national trade association. This endorsement can help generate more leads and create more opportunities for growth in the long run.
Can Real Estate Agent Be a Side Job?
Some REALTORS® work part time, taking advantage of the flexible work routine. However, the most successful real estate agents work full time, often recording long or irregular hours due to the rigors of the job.
Are Real Estate Agents in Demand?
BLS projections indicate that work in real estate will grow 2% between 2019-2029. That figure is lower than the national average, but keep in mind that job outlook fluctuates with local demand and variations in the housing market.
How Much Money Do Real Estate Agents Make?
Real estate agent salary rates depend on location, brokerage, and available work, especially as most work on commission. Overall, BLS data indicate a higher median annual wage for REALTORS® than for most other occupations nationwide.
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