Like a sea of medals on a general’s chest, many real estate agents’ business cards are festooned with initials after their names.

Agents may boast about such designations or certifications as ABR, SRES, GRI or a host of others intended to be a testament to expertise they bring to a home-sale transaction. However, there are so many of them that they may be alphabet soup to the average consumer.

The acronyms usually represent coursework focused on a single aspect of real estate, such as transactions involving raw land, foreclosures or international properties, explained Colleen Ryan, manager of education services for the National Association of Realtors.

Or, she said, they may indicate broader specialized coursework in residential transactions (as opposed to commercial real estate, for example) or working specifically with homebuyers (as opposed to sellers).

Adding to the potential confusion, within NAR there’s a difference between a certification and a designation. "Designations have additional requirements that need to be met, in addition to the coursework," Ryan said. "The coursework is also more detailed and longer in terms of the number of hours that must be completed.

"Designations also have a dues/membership fee attached that must be renewed to keep their membership current," she explained.

The NAR offers courses leading to nearly two dozen such designations and certifications, though many of them deal with such interests as appraisal or brokerage management, rather areas that directly touch on consumer issues.

And though NAR-sponsored courses dominate the acronyms, other real estate organizations also bestow certification in such things as green building and home staging.

The courses vary widely in their requirements, from an afternoon to several days; many of them are offered online now, an option that’s particularly popular with younger agents, Ryan said.

Whether these accolades necessarily benefit consumers is something that even agents themselves argue about — sometimes hotly — given the broad disparity in the depth of the courses and whether coursework actually translates into experience.

(The Realtors suggest, at least, that the completed courses translate into earnings. The trade group cites a 2009 survey that says the median income of agents without designations was about half that of agents with at least one designation.)

Nonetheless, consumers who have little background in the world of real estate agents probably couldn’t parse a CIPS from an RSPS. A quick guide to some of the letters they might encounter in the Acronym Jungle: …CONTINUED

  • SFR (Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource). The new course, leading to a certification, is a sign of our times, Ryan said. It’s intended to teach agents how to navigate the byzantine path through foreclosures and short sales, in which seller and his lender agree to sell a home for an amount less than the value of the mortgage.
  • ABR (Accredited Buyer Representative). The designation course covers legal considerations and duties specific to working with buyers, negotiation skills, and other topics.
  • CRS (Certified Residential Specialist). The designation requires that an agent complete a specified number of transactions and includes several courses in such topics as effective sales presentations or real estate technology.
  • GRI (Graduate Realtor Institute). The designation course requires 90 to 95 hours of coursework on contract law, taxes, finance and other topics.
  • SRES (Senior Real Estate Specialist). The designation course is intended to develop skills specific to the needs of buyers and sellers aged 55 and over. It includes materials on tax laws, probate and estate planning.
  • RSPS (Resort & Second-Home Property Specialist). As the name implies, the certification course teaches the essentials of buying, selling, or managing resort properties or second homes.
  • ABR (Accredited Buyer’s Representative). After the two-day designation course, agents have three years to verify five completed transactions in which they acted solely as a legally designated buyer’s agent.
  • "Green" designations — Real estate agents can establish environmental-awareness credentials in a couple of ways. EcoBroker is a designation from an organization unaffiliated with NAR. Agents can earn the EcoBroker designation by completing an assortment of two-day courses, in class or online, on such concerns as radon, asbestos, indoor air quality, LEED certification, solar power, etc. NAR offers a GREEN designation, on similar topics.
  • CRP (Certified Relocation Professional). Worldwide ERP, a trade group for the relocation industry, offers an exam for agents and others in the business on corporate relocation policy, appraising, residential real estate, tax and legal issues, among other topics.

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.


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