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Most homeowners and prospective homeowners will have to deal with a real estate professional at some point. But how do they know what type of professional to go with? On the flip side, real estate is also an attractive field to break into. Many people aspire to careers in real estate. No matter what is happening in the economy, it’s always either a buyer’s or seller’s market. That means real estate can be a great, stable place to build a career.

Whether you’re inside or outside the business, however, the terminology can get confusing. Terms like real estate agent, realtor, broker, and associate broker abound. What is the difference between all these categories? Which one should a first-time buyer deal with? And as far as career prospects, which are the best titles to aspire to?

Defining the Terms

Real estate brokers are licensed by the state. That means requirements can vary from place to place. In California, brokers must have a combination of work experience and college coursework to sit for the state exam. There is an exception for lawyers. They are permitted to sit the exam without taking additional college courses or doing work experience.

Real estate agents are a rung lower than brokers. Brokers can work for themselves, but typically, agents must work for brokers. Real estate agents must also be licensed. Their education generally is less intensive than that of a broker. Of course, there are sometimes exceptions to this.

A realtor is a member of a nationally recognized professional organization. Brokers and agents can both become realtors. Realtors have to abide by a code of ethics in addition to acquiring the training required by the state where they reside.

What Does it All Mean?

If you’re trying to get into the business, eager to buy or sell, research the laws in your state. Are agents allowed to represent both sides of the transaction? Do your friends have trusted brokers to recommend? When you look up brokerages, how detailed are their agents’ biographies?

Doing some research about the terms, in general, is a great idea. Learning what laws govern real estate transactions in your state is also an important step. Knowledge can safeguard you from being taken in by a less-than-honest real estate professional.