The vast majority of residential real estate brokers in the United States belong to the National Association of REALTORS (NAR). Most brokers in Canada belong to the Canadian Association of REALTORS, which is directly related to NAR.
Any broker who is not a member of NAR does not have the right to call him or herself a "REALTOR," as this is a registered trademark of NAR. The association uses the term "REALTOR" to designate its members as distinct from all other real estate brokers in several ways:
--Every member promises to uphold a strict Code of Ethics
--Every member agrees to participate in arbitration in cases of dispute with other brokers or clients
--Every member agrees to participate in certain types of continuing education that uphold ethical standards and improve professionalism
In addition, REALTORS have state and local associations in which they participate. Individual members work to promote property rights and the interests of property owners in federal, state, and local governments.
So, does this mean that non-REALTORS are incompetent? No. There are a number of real estate brokers who either don't see a benefit in joining or won't join for other reasons:
--Brokers who work solely with commercial real estate
--Brokers who work only with developers to promote specific projects
--Brokers who work only part-time or infrequently
There are also other brokers that think they have a controlling interest in a particular market or sub-market and want to protect it by cooperating financially with other brokers as little as possible. That situation is decidedly the exception and not the rule.
As of March 31, 2013, there are 968,882 REALTOR members of the National Association of REALTORS in almost 1,400 local associations (see http://www.realtor.org/field-guides/field-guide-to-quick-rea ). This means that there is one REALTOR for about every 322 persons in the United States. So you can see that most people are pretty close to a real estate broker, either by family, friendly, or neighborly relation.
It's true that to be a member of a Multiple Listing Service (MLS), the computerized database on which almost every residential real estate broker depends, you must be a member of the local board of REALTORS. Commercial brokers don't depend on MLS as much as residential brokers do, so they oftentimes aren't REALTORS. However, there are other trade organizations for commercial brokers that serve many of the same purposes as NAR.
Hope that answers your question :-) Take a look at http://www.realtor.org for a history of the NAR and lots of other interesting information about the association!
Don Pasek, CIPS, TRC, ADPR
Omniterra Real Properties