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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

NAR Fights Losing Battle for Public Recognition of Its ‘Realtor’ Trademark

[Published Oct. 23, 2014, in the Jeffco editions of the Denver Post's YourHub section. An abbreviated version also appeared in five Jefferson County weekly newspapers. The last two paragraphs below were not in either version.]

I’d be curious to know what percentage of Americans realize that “Realtor” is a trademark and not a synonym for “real estate agent.”  I suspect the majority of Americans don’t know that, despite frequent advertising by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) urging the public to “use a Realtor.”

The fact is that membership in NAR is not required of real estate licensees, although the big franchises (RE/Max, Keller Williams, Coldwell Banker, et al.) require their agents to join their local Realtor association, which in turn makes them members of NAR.  (Golden Real Estate agents are all Realtors.)

I remember misusing the term “Realtor” when I first started writing this column 10 years ago.  I received an email from Ann Turner, then executive director of the Jefferson County Association of Realtors, advising me that the word “Realtor” should only be used when you can substitute for it the phrase “member of the National Association of Realtors.”

If you check all my columns since then at, you will find that I have never again misused the word “Realtor” in this column or elsewhere, but I frequently hear and see it misused by many agents — including Realtors — and the public. It is particularly upsetting to NAR (and to me) when a non-Realtor describes himself or herself as a “Realtor.”

It’s clearly a losing battle for NAR.  If you find yourself calling any tissue a “Kleenex,” you probably call any agent a “realtor.”  (I just noticed that my computer’s spellcheck automatically capitalized Kleenex, but did not capitalize realtor!  I rest my case!)

As much as I like to defend the Realtor trademark, I have never liked NAR’s approach toward promoting and defending it. As a journalist I object to the organization’s insistence that the word be written in all caps — REALTOR — and always have the trademark symbol — ® — attached to it.  I honor the Realtor trademark in this column by putting the trademark symbol only in my byline. To readers, all caps signifies an acronym, which Realtor is not. Can you think of any other trademark which insists on all capital letters for a brand that’s not an acronym? 

As a defender of the trademark myself, I find NAR’s campaign urging the public to “use a Realtor” ineffective because the message is interpreted by the public as meaning “use a real estate agent” vs. not using an agent. It doesn’t clearly address their point that not all agents are Realtors.

NAR’s primary argument for using a member is that “only Realtors subscribe to a Code of Ethics” — an empty statement to critics of our profession.  I’d choose a Realtor for several more important reasons.
Supporting NAR with my membership dollars (about $500 including the local and state associations) is a professional and moral obligation, much like joining my local chambers of commerce. It's about giving back to an organization which defends my profession and its clients from misguided state and federal legislation.  All real estate agents -- and their clients -- benefit from the activism of NAR and the state/local Realtor associations regarding property rights and professional regulations.  Agents who choose not to support NAR by becoming a dues-paying member are asking the rest of us to carry their weight financially.

Most real estate agents -- indeed, many NAR members -- do not earn enough to support themselves. They must rely on a second income or other family earners for their financial survival.  Thus, a key reason agents don't join their local Realtor association is that they simply can't afford the dues.  That begs the question: Why would you choose an agent who is not successful enough to afford Realtor dues?  Moreover, if a real estate agent scrimps -- by choice or necessity -- on his trade association dues, he is also likely to scrimp on what he spends to market your home.  That, in my opinion, is a much stronger reason than our Code of Ethics to hire a Realtor. 

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