"Real estate professional" is a term most often used to identify brokers, builders or developers. But there are an increasing number and variety of specialists in today's market -- people who focus their professional expertise on a narrow niche of real estate service.
As in the medical field and other professions, real estate is moving into the age of specialization. Buyers' brokers (representing buyers' interests only), real estate counselors, exchange specialists, relocation consultants, international brokerage -- these are among the growing breed of specialists. Such niche professionals are found in all major U.S. cities.
Traditionally, a prospective homebuyer responds to an advertised property by contacting the broker named in the ad. This is usually (but not always) the broker who has an exclusive listing on the property. If seriously interested, the prospect works out a purchase-offer contract with that broker.
Most prospective buyers do not realize that this broker is legally and ethically an agent (or subagent) for the seller. It's the broker's responsibility to land the best possible deal for the seller client. In most cases, this arrangement works well because the broker must satisfy and bring together all parties in the transaction to make a sale -- and earn a commission.
However, the matter of broker representation has become increasingly controversial in recent years. Forty-three states have adopted disclosure rules and regulations to be sure homebuyers realize whom the brokers represent. Full consumer disclosure is mandated. And that has resulted in the increasing number of buyers' brokers.
"About 30,000 to 38,000 buyer representatives are operating in the residential real estate business today," said Barry Miller, president of Buyer's Resource Inc., an education-information center for consumers and brokers based in Denver.
Most of these specialists are located in the West and Southwest regions, but they are now emerging at points throughout the country, he noted.
Harley E. Rouda, president of the National Association of Realtors, believes the role of the buyer's broker hasn't really taken hold yet. Of the 5,200 homes sold by his brokerage firm last year, only 25 involved a buyer's broker, he said.
Real estate counseling or consulting is another increasingly active area of specialization. This involves communicating information and recommendations to a client for a fee. Assignments often include a substantial amount of research by the counselor-consultant.
Professional real estate counseling has never been more important than it is today, Mr. Rouda said. "With the savings and loan crisis, problems related to the Resolution Trust Corp. and complex purchasing and financing arrangements prevalent in today's market, expert advice and guidance are essential to the success of projects."
The largest organization of counselors is the 900-member American Society of Real Estate Counselors, an affiliate of NAR established in 1953. Membership is attained by invitation of peers only, said Eugene Carver, SREC president.
Relocation counseling is also an increasingly important specialty particularly the process of selling one home and purchasing another in a distant location. Full-time relocation counselors are retained by many major brokerage firms. They work closely with corporate personnel directors and individual transferees.
The only independent trade council available to relocation specialists is the Employee Relocation Council (ERC). This group recently reported that more than 12,000 relocation professionals transfer about 270,000 people annually. A year ago, ERC created a professional designation for relocation specialists -- Certified Relocation Professional (CRP).
International real estate brokerage and counseling is also becoming a major specialization. The major trade association for people specializing in international brokerage is the International Real Estate Federation, known by its French initials, FIABCI. This growing, 1,200-member organization has chapters in 44 countries, including a very active U.S. chapter. The group established the professional designation Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS).
As real estate transactions become more complex and high-tech communications open doors to international activities, the need for specialists grows.