Realtors make money on commission: They only get paid when they sell a house or help someone buy a house. The standard Realtor commission in the United States is between 5 and 6 percent, which is evenly split between the seller's agent and the buyer's agent [source: Linden]. The person who sells the home is responsible for paying the entire commission.
How much of that commission the Realtor actually takes home depends on a few factors. Many Realtors work for small or large real estate firms. It's common for a Realtor to pay 30 to 50 percent of his or her commission to the firm, leaving as little as 1.5 percent in the Realtor's pocket [source: Lending Tree]. Even if a Realtor doesn't work directly for a firm, he or she might work with a real estate broker who provides the Realtor with referrals. That broker will also want a cut. Self-employed Realtors can keep all the commission, but they run the risk of losing business to larger competitors.
Commissions are negotiable, although NAR members are strongly encouraged not to budge under five percent. The idea is that the level of service offered by a certified Realtor is worth the full commission. In fact, the NAR claims that in 2005, homes represented by a certified Realtor sold for 16 percent more than homes that didn't use a Realtor [source: National Association of Realtors]. That said, when the real estate market gets really slow, even certified Realtors are tempted to lower their commissions to sell more homes.
Real estate is an incredibly competitive business where very few Realtors are likely to get rich. In 2006, the middle 50 percent of real estate agents earned between $26,790 and $65,270 a year in the United States [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].
The average salary of Realtors doesn't change that much between hot and cold markets [source: Goolsby]. That's because in hot markets, the profession is flooded with real estate agents who think they can make a quick buck. With so many agents in the field, it limits how many homes any individual agent can sell. In a colder market, fewer total homes are sold, but fewer agents are selling them, so the earning potential evens out.
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