Few people understand much less know there's a difference between a REALTOR® and a real estate agent. Simply put, all REALTORS® are real estate agents but not all real estate agents are REALTORS®.
Real estate agents are people who've passed a state exam to receive a license to engage in the practice of real estate. Along with that license comes a fiduciary duty to treat all parties to a transaction honestly and to hold their client's best interests above all else.
Beyond this, agents may distinguish themselves by joining the National Association of REALTORS®. New members must take an online course and pass an exam on their strict, legally enforceable Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice.
Once done, they have earned the REALTOR® designation and are held accountable to these standards. They are also expected to maintain a higher level of knowledge of the process of buying and selling real estate. Current members in order to maintain their status must take a refresher course and pass an exam every four years.
Only about half of all licensed real estate agents in the U.S. are REALTORS®. Of the roughly 455,000 real estate licensees in California only about 36% are REALTORS®.
Here's a summary of The Code of Ethics (consisting of 17 Articles each with their respective Standards of Practice) from the NAR's website that all REALTORS® pledge to uphold:
1. Pledge to put the interests of buyers and sellers ahead of their own and to treat all parties honestly.
2. Shall refrain from exaggerating, misrepresenting or concealing material facts; and is obligated to investigate and disclose when situations reasonably warrant.
3. Shall cooperate with other brokers / agents when it is in the best interests of the client to do so.
4. Have a duty to disclose if they represent family members who own or about to buy real estate.
5. Shall not provide professional services in a transaction where the agent has a present or contemplated interest without disclosing that interest.
6. Shall not collect any commissions without the seller's knowledge nor accept fees from a third-party without the seller's express consent.
7. Shall refuse fees from more than one party without all parties' informed consent.
8. Shall not co-mingle client funds with their own.
9. Shall attempt to ensure that all written documents are easy to understand and will give everybody a copy of what they sign.
10. Shall not discriminate in any fashion for any reason on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.
11. Expects agents to be competent, to conform to standards of practice and to refuse to provide services for which they are unqualified.
12. Must engage in truth in advertising.
13. Shall not practice law unless they are a lawyer.
14. Shall cooperate if charges are brought against them and present all evidence requested.
15. Agree not to bad-mouth competition and agree not to file unfounded ethics complaints.
16. Shall not solicit another REALTOR'S® client nor interfere in a contractual relationship.
17. Shall submit to arbitration to settle matters and not seek legal remedies in the judicial system.
Some of these obligations may be higher than those mandated by law. A full and complete edition of the Code of Ethics may be found here: NAR CODE OF ETHICS
. Knowing that these higher levels of professionalism exist should make it easier to determine whom you want on your side when being represented in one of the single most important transactions of a lifetime.