Dispelling a misconception 

The end of the year is drawing near — and so are the dreaded annual association membership dues for 2024.

Many agents balk at the thought of having to pay these excessive and unnecessary dues. Further, as we move into a challenging recessionary economy, brokers need to ask themselves what they can tangibly do to reduce their operational costs and remain competitive – and in turn, attract good agents.

Cat out of the bag: association membership is unnecessary.

However, many real estate licensees still erroneously believe they must join the National Association of Realtors (NAR)®, the California Association of Realtors (CAR)® or the local Association of Realtors (AOR) branch of CAR® to practice real estate in California. Worse, these trade union leviathans are too often equated with the Department of Real Estate (DRE) due to their past inappropriate top-level liaisons.

And for those tuned into the news, NAR® is currently notorious in the headlines for losing an anti-trust lawsuit evolving from their cooperative compensation rules.

Related article: 

NAR® to pay out $1.8 billion in broker conspiracy lawsuit

Some 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 multiple listing services (MLS).

This impression is not unfounded. Before 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 requirement for MLS access to the marketplace. The association was allowed to exact a “reasonable fee” from nonmembers, derogatorily 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 MLS subscription; or
  • an 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.

Subscribing to the MLS without entanglement

To subscribe to the MLS, you are 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 an 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 are to parallel the broker’s membership or non-membership in the AOR.

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.

Related article: 

NAR® members jump ship following sexual harassment allegations and more anti-trust lawsuits

Editor’s note – This article was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated.