While people use the terms real estate agent and realtor interchangeably, they are not quite the same thing. “Real estate agent” is a generic term, signifying anyone who is licensed to assist in the selling or leasing of a piece of property. “Realtor,” on the other hand, is a proprietary term, correctly applied only to those real estate agents who belong to the National Association of Realtors. It was a member of an earlier version of this organization, in fact, who invented the word “realtor” itself.
Before 1916, those who helped with the sale of property were commonly called real estate men. This indicated that their business involved actual land and houses: real estate, or realty. An organization of real estate men founded in Chicago in 1908 with an aim at enhancing the influence of their trade was called the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges. Other goals of the association were to standardize and regulate real estate practices. To this end, members were required to operate under a code of ethics called the Golden Rule. In 1916, the group changed its name to the National Association of Real Estate Boards. Charles N. Chadbourn, a member from Minneapolis, proposed in that same year that those who belonged should be distinguished from those who didn’t by a title. His suggestion, realtor, was accepted. So, too, was his proposal that the word be patented, though this occurred decades later in 1949.
The realtor’s trade organization, which in 1978 changed its name to the National Association of Realtors, capitalizes the word and follows it with a registered trademark sign. Elsewhere, however, “realtor” appears with no special marks, and is ordinarily not capitalized. It still carries a distinctive meaning, however. In 2004, the United States Patent and Trademark Office ruled that “realtor” and “realtors," despite their frequent use, were still the property of the National Association of Realtors and could only be legally applied to its members.
In order for someone to become a realtor, he must first take the courses and pass the test that earns him a real estate license. A little over half of the real estate agents in the United States go on to join the National Association of Realtors by applying through their local board. Membership requires the payment of annual fees and the taking of additional classes at least every 4 years. The code of ethics still governs the members.