Agents act as go-betweens for the principal parties, carrying offers and counteroffers and other questions back and forth. Once a bid is accepted, agents on both sides often continue to work, helping their clients through the paperwork, conveying communications, advising on inspections and moving, and generally shepherding the deal through to closing.
In order to become a real estate agent and legally practice real estate, you must work under a supervising broker. Brokers are licensed by the state to oversee real estate transactions and ensure that real estate salespeople (that's you!) are adhering to the required legal and ethical standards.Think of it as a similar safeguard to how stockbrokers must work at a licensed firm to trade stocks, rather than just winging it on their own. Eventually, you could also apply for a license to become a real estate broker as well, but you will first want to get a few years as an agent under your belt.
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A real estate broker is a step up the professional food chain. Brokers have additional training and education that have qualified them to pass a higher licensing exam; most states also require them to have a certain amount of recent experience as an active real estate agent. Brokers handle the technical aspects of the real estate transaction. A client signs a contract with a brokerage, not the individual agent. In many states brokers' additional certification authorizes them to handle other legal and financial aspects of a deal, such as handling the earnest money deposit and establishing the escrow account.
Brokers typically own a firm or a franchise. They can be solo practitioners, but they must attain another higher-level license if they want to hire agents or other brokers to work under them. As mentioned earlier, a real estate agent usually cannot work alone but instead must operate through a real estate broker; the exception is in states such as Colorado and New Mexico, which mandate that every real estate professional be licensed as a broker. Usually, though, agents work for brokers and split commissions with them.