Every year, real estate agents and brokers alike balk at the thought of having to shell out excessive and discretionary dues to the California Association of Realtors® (CAR) and other Realtor® associations — up to $700 annually, depending on the local association.

In fact, according to a poll from 2019, 66% of respondents said the services CAR offers are not worth the cost of membership.

However, real estate agents stick with the trade union for a few important reasons. CAR provides 45-hour renewal packages, forms through its zipForm® software, real-estate-related webinars — among other amenities such as legal advice and industry connections — all included in the cost of membership.

But all this is disingenuous at best. CAR couches these services as being “free,” but considering the exorbitant member dues, it’s hard to argue they are worth the price.

For starters, the 45-hour continuing education courses CAR offers are generic at best, and downright sloppy at worst. In addition, real estate agents can find inexpensive, easy-to-navigate 45-hour courses in a multitude of places — including firsttuesday.

As for forms, agents needn’t pay for them at all. RPI forms are comprehensive, simple, and free to use — always.

Related video:

California Real Estate Forms and the Freedom of Choice

But the most significant reason people cite for remaining in CAR’s bed is access to a multiple listing service (MLS).

Knowledge is money saved

However, as firsttuesday has noted many times, CAR membership is not required for MLS access!

Despite continued assurances to the contrary, many real estate licensees still erroneously believe they must join CAR, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) or their local Association of Realtors® (AOR) branch of CAR to practice real estate in California. Worse, these trade unions are still too often equated to the California Department of Real Estate (DRE).

Other licensees have a slightly better grasp of the implications of membership or non-membership in the real estate trade union, but still mistakenly believe that union membership is necessary in order to access their local MLS.

While this misconception seemed to have lost ground in recent years, a recent poll showed it is still on the rise, with a full 57% of participants espousing the belief that CAR membership is “required” for MLS access.

This impression is not unfounded — though is woefully outdated. Prior to 1976, most real estate trade unions owned their local MLS and required all access to come through membership in their association. Such practice was prohibited in 1976. [Marin County Board of Realtors, Inc. v. Palsson (1976) 16 C3d 920]

Palsson prohibited making association membership a requisite for MLS access to the marketplace. The association was allowed to exact a “reasonable fee” from nonmembers, called Palsson members, for MLS access.

As an agent, your obligation to become a trade union member in order to access the MLS depends on your broker’s membership level with the AOR.

For access to the MLS, AORs give brokers the option of:

  • Realtor® member, which includes CAR and NAR membership along with an MLS subscription; or
  • MLS participant/subscriber only.

Thus, trade union membership is not required to practice real estate — nor is it required to access an MLS. This fact can be confirmed with your local AOR, as they well know the rules.

To subscribe to the MLS, you need to:

  • have a valid California real estate license;
  • be a broker, or a sales agent under a broker who is a member of the MLS;
  • apply for access to the MLS; and
  • pay a reasonable MLS fee, which varies by AOR.

If you are an agent of a broker who is not a member of an AOR, your broker will not require you to be a member of an AOR. However, if your broker is a member of an AOR, your broker will require you to also be a member of the AOR. Remember, as a sales agent, you are acting on behalf of your broker — an agent of the agent — and need to parallel the broker’s membership or non-membership in the AOR. If not, the AOR in which your broker is a member will be billed for your AOR membership fee even when you do not become a member.

No other restrictions apply to MLS access. None. Real estate brokers and their agents can continue to access an MLS without paying excessive and unnecessary dues or entangling themselves in a trade union’s bureaucracy, codes and arbitration rules.

Knowledge is strength — and in this case, money saved.

This article was originally published October 2013, and has been updated.