There are a number of different terms that may be used to describe a real estate professional that helps people buy and sell homes. They may be a real estate agent, a salesperson, or even a broker. But there is one term that is a little more nuanced, and that is ‘realtor’, or as the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) would have you write it – REALTOR®.
The term ‘realtor’ is much more than just a word. It represents membership to a specific organization (the Canadian Real Estate Association) and with that, a certain code of ethics and business practices that the organization upholds. Because of this, it is a very powerful term that many use to advertise themselves and their services to help themselves appeal to clients.
However, some people get scared off when they hear that there are rules around who can use the word and when. Because of this, you may feel like just ignoring it altogether to avoid getting in trouble. It is a pretty unique case, but it isn't anything so complex that you should not take advantage of its use. In this article, we will look at the history and use of the term ‘realtor’, who can use it, and how it should be used.
A history of the term 'realtor'
To understand how we got the word realtor, you need to begin in medieval England.
When the Normans invaded England and took power in 1066, they brought with them two important things: their language and their laws. From their laws, the English began to develop a formalized system of land ownership, and from their language, we got many Latin-derived terms including one in particular: real estate. The term literally means estate (property) that is ‘real’ in a legal sense, meaning it is a specific physical object or piece of land.
At that time, Old French and Latin were the languages of the ruling class who were generally also the landowners, so it makes sense that our words relating to property come from here. Though much has changed since then, this historical story still has an impact on our modern English language and legal system in Canada today.
Fast forward a few centuries to the early 1900s in North America where property ownership was no longer just something for the ruling class. Now, there was a need to regulate the industry to ensure quality service for the average person who was buying land. This led to the creation of the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges in 1908, known today as the National Association of Realtors (NAR). The association was created to ensure quality service and reliability in the real estate industry in the U.S. One of their major ideas was a code of ethics for all salespeople who were members of their organization. In order to differentiate these members from the general real estate agents, they developed a new term. In 1916, the term realtor was coined by member Charles N. Chadbourn. Just as an actor acts and a sculptor sculpts, a realtor works with reality.
The Canadian Real Estate Association, our own version of NAR, adopted the term for use in Canada and maintains the trademark on this side of the border. This story explains a lot of the modern complications around the term ‘realtor’. Because it was expressly created by NAR, they have the right to maintain and enforce their trademark and exclusive use of the term.
However, actual language use doesn't obey the law, nor does it care how an organization wants words to be used, so ‘realtor’ has gradually come to be used incorrectly in a general sense as a synonym for ‘real estate agent’. This is somewhat inevitable due to the prominence of NAR and CREA in their respective markets. Most real estate agents that people encounter are in fact realtors, so people began to conflate the two terms.
Whether NAR likes it or not, the term realtor is now a part of casual English vocabulary, though, for official and formal purposes, the REALTOR® trademark is still very much enforceable. However, NAR is not happy about their term becoming just any other word. There is a process called trademark erosion, or genericization, through which trademarked terms gradually become so common that the trademark holder can actually lose their right to enforce the term. Famous examples are brands like Google, Kleenex, and Band-Aid which have had to fight to maintain their trademarks against gradual erosion.
In fact, there have even been appeals to remove the REALTOR® trademark specifically, though NAR managed to win these battles so far. The thing is that in order to argue against their trademark being ruled a generic word, NAR and CREA do not have the luxury of letting some uses go unchallenged as lack of enforcement can lend credence to arguments of genericization. So while the laws surrounding the term may seem strict, it really is for good reason.
These real estate associations are not simply being petty after all. A REALTOR® is someone who represents their organization and their strict code of ethics and business practices. This is a form of consumer protection and a guarantee of a certain level of business standards. If the term erodes, it will be much harder for consumers to identify the reliable and accountable salespeople from those who may be less so, making the industry less trustworthy in the eyes of the public and putting consumers at risk.
How to use the REALTOR® trademark
Hopefully, you now understand why the REALTOR® trademark is so vehemently protected, but now let's try and explain just how CREA would like you to use it. As an agent under CREA, it is crucial that you always observe the proper use of the trademark in anything you do. Luckily, the guidelines are pretty consistent across most usages of the term, so as long as you learn the dos and don'ts you should do just fine. Finally, I should note that we are not associated with the Canadian Real Estate Association. While we can offer some general information, for the most up-to-date and accurate information, you should consult their official material above anything else.
Who can and can't use the term?
The very first and most important fact about the usage of the REALTOR® trademark is that it is exclusively limited to real estate professionals who are members of CREA or NAR. Just because you work in real estate or own a real estate business, this does not mean you have permission to use the word in an official capacity.
Before you think, "I'm not a member of CREA, what can they do to me?", that's not how it works. REALTOR® is a legal trademark (see that funny little symbol?) which means enforcement is not an internal matter for CREA, but a legal matter. CREA can and will dispute your use of the REALTOR® trademark, especially if you have no connection with them, which can result in legal consequences for you. Canadian trademark law also allows for "confusingly similar" uses to constitute trademark infringement. This means you aren't going to get around the rules by advertising as a 'Realtour', 'Reeltor', 'Relator' or any other made-up title.
CREA stresses that the term REALTOR® is not a job title and is not synonymous with ‘real estate agent’, but should instead be understood to mean "member of the Canadian Real Estate Association". If you aren't a member, it simply doesn’t make sense to use a term implying that you are.
As a member of CREA, you are able to use the REALTOR® trademark and related trademarks, including in advertising, though you need to observe some important usage rules. The most basic rule for using the REALTOR® trademark essentially says that any use of the trademark must emphasize it as a distinctive trademark and never a generic term or descriptive word.
When using the REALTOR® trademark, it must always appear just like that. All capitals, with the copyright symbol, preceding. Any other renderings, auditions, or modifications to the mark are not permitted. This is referred to by CREA as “the form rule”.
The other important rule is “the context rule”, which states that you must use the mark in the proper context. If you simply mean real estate agent or broker, that is the term you should use. If you want to talk about someone who is a member of CREA, then you can use the REALTOR® trademark.
There is also a requirement for most uses of the term REALTOR® to include, whenever possible, a trademark statement. On a website, this may be at the bottom of the page or article. On an ad, it may be in the fine print at the bottom. Here is an example of what such a trademark statement might look like:
"The trademarks REALTOR®, REALTORS®, and the REALTOR® logo are controlled by The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) and identify real estate professionals who are members of CREA. " The term REALTOR® can also be used by CREA members for things like team names, firm names, social media handles, domain names and more, though these uses are subject to more stringent policies and the approval of CREA."
What are the punishments for misuse?
There are no solid rules about what punishments you will face for misusing CREA's trademarks as it will depend on the individual circumstance.
At the lowest level, you may simply receive a friendly email from the CREA legal team letting you know about the proper usage of their trademark and how to be compliant. CREA is well aware that people often make mistakes with regard to their trademark, often unintentionally. Even members of CREA themselves often make these mistakes, so the first step for the organization is pretty casual.
For more egregious or repeated infringement or misuse, the organization may take a harder stance. For members of CREA, the proper use of CREA's trademarks is enshrined in the REALTOR® code of ethics that all members must abide by. Punishments for violations of this code can be various, up to and including revoking a REALTOR®'s licence to use CREA trademarks and access to CREA services. Again, punishment will vary on the specifics of a given violation.
For non-members of CREA, your punishment would fall under Canadian trademark infringement laws. Should CREA see fit as the trademark holder, they are entitled to open a lawsuit against offending uses of their trademark. Remedies as a result of a successful trademark lawsuit can include the payment of damages, the destruction of offending materials (for example, business cards that wrongly use the REALTOR® trademark), and more. This would generally be a last resort for CREA, and in my research, I could find no precedent of such a lawsuit actually being used, however, it is well within their legal rights to do so.
As a real estate agent and member of CREA, you would be allowed to use the term REALTOR® in your advertising and other places, but you need to observe a few basic rules. The CREA trademarks carry a lot of weight in the real estate industry so they rightfully wish to protect their trademarks. By following the organization’s rules, you can take advantage of the benefits while ensuring the terms remain legally distinct and useful for both real estate professionals and consumers.