REALTOR History Cannot be Understood Without Setting the Scene

This post is part of a series covering my journey of discovery through the history of the National Association of REALTORS. As my guide and my inspiration, I am using a book published by NAR, “100 Years in Celebration of The American Dream,” celebrating the Centennial of NAR. The following was inspired by reading just the first ten pages.

The National Association of REALTORS turns 100 years old this year. That is pretty old, as organizations go. It is old enough that there is not one single member of our organization alive today that can remember the birth of NAR. This is both good and bad.

The Good

100 years is a long time. Here is some simple math:

1908 to 2008 = 100 years

1776 to 2008 = 232 years


The people who make up the membership of NAR have lived and worked through many of the significant events in American history.

The fact that our organization is 100 years old is a testament to the vision and hard work of the men who met together in Chicago 100 years ago with the idea of starting a national organization of “real estate men,” as they were then called. As a general rule, bad ideas don’t usually stick around for 100 years (I can think of a few exceptions, but most of them required a war or two for survival). Those men, and all those who have come and gone since, obviously did something right.

The Bad

100 years is a long time. Our culture has changed quite a lot over that time. Attention spans are much shorter, and so are memories. This means that much of what has been learned might have already have been forgotten. This fact is what makes the NAR Centennial book such an important publication. We should always be reminded of those who came before, we should always be willing to learn from their example and from their work. If we fail to do that, then the end result is that all of their hard work will have been in vain. I hope very sincerely that those of us who have chosen to bear the title of REALTOR today, will do our best to honor those without whom our privileges would not be possible.

Let’s Begin at the Beginning

I dare think that the practice of real estate at the turn of the 20th century would be almost completely foreign to REALTORS practicing today. When I say this, I’m not talking about the many technologies that make our daily work life more efficient. I’m talking about the actual cultural, professional, historical, and legal climate that was present 100 years ago for real estate men.

Some things to consider about the world of real estate 100 years ago:

1) Widespread private real estate ownership is brand new. I think it is pretty safe to say that the majority of you reading this post own the home in which you currently live. There is also a pretty good chance that you live in a suburb, or even a rural area (like me). 100 years ago, that was not the case. Most Americans did not own their homes, and the cities held the vast majority of the American population. The concept of the suburb hadn’t even been born yet. It was about this time, however, that many cities and towns were rapidly expanding. This meant that those expanding cities and towns needed a place for people to live, they needed real estate.

2) There were no licensees. 100 years ago, anyone, I mean ANYONE could call themselves a real estate dealer. There were people called “curbstoners.” These unscrupulous individuals would basically set up shop as a real estate dealer on the sidewalk (the curbstone), and bilk or swindle anyone they could. Have you ever been in a city and been approached by people handing out flyers for something, or saying, “psst– come check out these watches and handbags I have. . .” now imagine if those people were peddling real estate. Scary, but it was happening all over.

3) There were no rules or laws governing transactions. We live in a world with RESPA. 100 years ago, however, Real estate transactions were governed by simple contracts common law. All that was needed was an agreement between the buyer and the seller. No mountains of paperwork, no lengthy disclosures, no warrantees, and very little recourse if they whole thing went awry.

These Conditions Warranted A Solution

The ethical practitioners of real estate recognized there were problems. What they didn’t have was a viable way of solving them. They did recognize, however, that the problems were similar all over the country. As the number of real estate practitioners grew, so to did the need for cooperation and collaboration among them if they were to address the issues facing their profession.

It took the leadership and vision of some of the nation’s largest real estate boards at that time to address these issues and launch the organization that would eventually be known as the National Association of REALTORS. We all know, however, what can happen to the best laid plans of mice and men if there is no leadership to guide them.

The necessary leadership would come first from the man who would eventually be the 5th President of NAR. More on him, and the seed that he planted, in my next installment. . .

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