Real Estate Agent vs Broker: The Real Difference

Buyer standing before three people, unsure which is a real estate broker, agent or Realtor

The vast majority of buyers and sellers in New York City use a real estate broker for their transactions. Or do they use a real estate agent? Realtor? Brokerage? These terms are often thrown around interchangeably but represent different parts of the real estate industry and each is a slightly different type of real estate professional. Understanding the distinctions is also important for anyone buying or selling who wants to understand who is paying whom and what they can do to minimize the commissions paid.

Table of Contents:

What’s the Difference Between a Real Estate Agent and a Broker?
Who Is Considered a Buyer’s Agent?
Who Is Considered a Listing Agent?
Who Is Considered a Realtor?

What's the Difference Between a Real Estate Agent and a Broker?

Both agents and brokers work with clients day to day. However, unlike an agent, a broker can work independently. An agent can only work under the supervision of a broker and does not have the right to enter into contracts with clients.

Every brokerage - that is, the actual company - has one “principal broker” who holds the firm’s license. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of the largest firms in the market or a one person show. All of the firm’s real estate agents then work under that license.

Everyone starts out as an agent. It’s only after gathering the required experience that they can become a broker.

To become a New York real estate broker, an agent must

  • Have two years of experience
  • Execute a minimum number of transactions
  • Take a 45 hour broker course
  • Pass the New York State licensing exam

You may also see the term “associate broker.” This is used for a real estate agent who has become a real estate broker but is not the principal broker that holds the firm’s license.

All listing agreements are entered into by the broker. An agent does not have the ability to independently enter into a listing agreement. Likewise, all commissions are made to the broker who then gives an agent his or her commission.

As a quick aside, sometimes you’ll hear about a “real estate salesperson.” This is just another term for a real estate agent. For this article, we are using “agents” as that is what they’re typically called.

Who Is Considered a Buyer’s Agent?

A buyer’s agent or buyer’s broker represents the buyer in real estate transactions. Buyer agency is defined as: “A principal agent relationship in which the broker is the agent for a buyer, with fiduciary responsibilities to the buyer.” What does that mean? The buyer’s agent works on behalf of the buyer to negotiate the best possible deal for the buyer. The buyer’s agent’s loyalty is to the buyer and only to the buyer. They’re like your ringman - looking out for your best interests, identifying potential problems with the property and negotiating to get you the best deal on the best possible terms.

A buyer’s agent is paid via the commission that is offered by the listing broker. This is an advertised amount available to any agent who brings a buyer. As a result, buyers do not pay for their agent. If a buyer goes directly to the listing agent, the listing agent will keep the entire commission - the portion intended for them as well as the commission they planned on paying to the buyer’s agent. For that reason, it rarely makes sense not to use a buyer’s agent.

Who Is Considered a Listing Agent?

A listing agent or seller’s agent is the real estate agent that represents the seller. Listing agents list homes for sale on the regional Multiple Listing Service (MLS) or REBNY Listing Service (RLS) in New York City. Just like the buyer’s agent, the listing agent is required to do their best to sell the client's home at the best possible price and on the best possible terms. Unlike the buyer’s agent, a listing agent is paid directly by the seller.

Typical selling duties carried out by a listing agent include setting an asking price, preparing the home for showings, and marketing a seller's home. An effective seller's agent arranges for showings of the home and answers any questions about the listing. In addition, a listing agent screens potential buyers to ensure they're serious and then negotiates for the best sales price on behalf of the client.

Who Is Considered a Realtor?

Realtor is also a term that is commonly used to identify real estate agents. In order to identify as a Realtor, an agent must be a member of the National Association of Realtors (NAR). The term “Realtor” is actually a trademark of NAR. NAR is the largest trade association in the U.S., with more than 1.2 million members.

The biggest distinction between a NAR member and an unaffiliated agent is that Realtors agree to follow a set of ethics guidelines aimed at ensuring the integrity of the agent and protecting clients. In NYC, it is rare to find a Realtor as most agents work for member firms of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) which has its own Co-Brokerage Agreement and Code of Ethics.

Sellers usually understand their relationship with their agent and broker since they’re the ones paying. For buyers, it’s most important to understand that by engaging a buyer’s agent, you are essentially leveling the playing field at no cost. Whether that person is actually an agent, associate broker or principal broker will not affect your representation. Yoreevo encourages you to ask for a commission rebate regardless of the agent but making sure you have one is the most important step.