They’re not all the same! And they’re not all mutually exclusive. What’s the difference? And how does it affect me…the buyer or seller?

Who is a real estate agent?

Someone who has taken a state-approved salesperson course, passed a state salesperson exam, and paid a licensing fee to the state immediately becomes a salesperson.  “Agent” is a popularly used term for salesperson. A salesperson/agent can assist people in buying/selling residential or commercial real estate, as well as renting residential and commercial properties. But in order to provide any of these services, an agent must be affiliated with a real estate broker.

Who is a real estate broker?

Someone who has had a salesperson/agent license for at least three years, took a state-approved broker course, passed a state broker exam, and paid a licensing fee to the state immediately becomes a broker.  Before taking the exam, the salesperson/agent not only had to have a license, but must have worked at least 25 hours a week for a broker. This typically means the agent worked in a real estate office run by a broker.

Once someone becomes a broker s/he can open his/her own real estate office, plus continue to  do all the things an agent does. In addition, the broker can have agents and other brokers affiliated with his/her office. Brokers are responsible for the legal behavior of the agents and brokers affiliated with their offices.

Why does everyone seem to use the words “broker” and “agent” interchangeably?

It really does seem like people rarely distinguish between the two in speech, or even in writing, for example in MLS text.  This is probably because one license vs. the other doesn’t have a direct impact on you as a buyer or seller. Of course, experience has a huge impact!  But a broker who took the exam as soon as s/he was eligible may have less than 4 years of real estate experience, while an agent who preferred to work for a big office rather than run his/her own office may have 30 years or more experience.  

Why is there a need for both types of licenses?

The salesperson/agent license is geared towards learning about the services that an agent provides to buyers, sellers, and renters. Certainly, everyone who provides real estate services should know as much as possible about how to do so. And, it’s this knowledge which is very important to you as a buyer, seller, or renter.

The broker license is geared towards learning about  the business of running a real estate office and complying with office-related state laws: displaying licenses in the office, handling escrow funds, having a bond in case of a lawsuit, etc.  

Just as a teacher may want to spend his/her career teaching students, rather than becoming a principal who is responsible for other teachers and for running a school, an agent may want to work with clients and customers, and not be responsible for other agents and managing an office. It’s a personal business decision.

What if my agent is the Team Leader of his/her own team?

An agent or broker who is affiliated with an office may want to expand his/her services to clients, and still leave the responsibility of running the office to someone else.  The agent works out logistical arrangements with office management whereby one or more people – including licensed and/or clerical professionals – will work under the the agent. Typically, the purpose of this arrangement is to enable the agent to provide more/better service to buyers and sellers by delegating to the team members tasks that require less or different experience than that of the Team Leader.

A team is a business arrangement. It does not require any type of license other than the standard salesperson or broker license.  If a team works as expected, it can be great for you, the buyer or seller. It give the Team Leader more time to focus on services to you which require his/her professional experience and attention.  And it likely provides you with the support of other dedicated team members in other areas, for example the logistics of coordinating and signing purchase and sales contracts.

What is the difference between a commercial agent and a residential agent?

As mentioned above, there is only one salesperson license, and it allows an agent to do residential and commercial real estate including selling/buying and rentals.  The distinctions between residential and commercial agents is what they choose to practice i.e. where their experience lies, and how they label themselves. Some residential agents work on rentals and sales.  But, in the Greater Boston Area, most agents do one or the other. Similarly, most residential agents will also help you buy or sell a 5-unit building which qualifies as a commercial sale. But when it comes to shopping malls and apartment complexes, typically that is reserved for agents who label themselves “commercial brokers” based on their experience and focus.

What about a buyer agent vs a seller agent

Again, the regular salesperson or broker license allow you to function as a buyer agent or a seller agent.  The salesperson or broker agrees with clients on a case-by-case basis which role the agent will take.  In fact, if you are selling your home to buy another one, your agent may function as a seller agent for your sale and a buyer agent for your purchase.  For more about what’s involved, see our blog post about selecting a buyer agent and a seller agent.

And who’s a realtor?

A realtor is a real estate professional who is a member of the Realtor organization which involves commiting to a Code of Ethics. A realtor can have a salesperson/agent license or a broker’s license. The licenses are about learning and following the laws surrounding real estate transactions.  The Realtor membership is focussed on behaving ethically in your real estate practice in addition to following the laws. Not all salesperson/agents and brokers are realtors as it is not required by law. Do you care about that as a buyer or seller? You bet you do! And you also should care that your instincts tell you that your agent takes the ethics seriously!

Chris Kostopoulos was originally a salesperson.  He became a broker and ran his own office. Now, he is a broker and a team leader affiliated with a large office within a large real estate brokerage.  He is also a Realtor. He has extensive experience helping people buy and sell residential property and smaller commercial buildings. You can contact Chris by phone at 857-829-0282 or email him at


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