The quality of real estate agents varies dramatically, from fabulous to frightful. To find an agent who rates at the fabulous end of the scale, look for one who is:
- a person of integrity
- in the full-time business of real estate -- you don't want a dabbler
- experienced with the types of services you need
- knowledgeable about the area where you want to live
- well-connected to other professionals in the real estate and related fields
- highly regarded by other agents (who might otherwise recommend that the seller reject your offer because your agent is too hard to work with)
- sophisticated in business matters
- tuned in to your tastes and needs
- licensed by your state, meaning the agent has met minimum levels of education, training, and testing. You'll get someone with even more education if you hire a "broker" (someone with the power to oversee ordinary agents).
- a member of a trade association such as the National Association of Realtors (NAR), meaning the agent is privy to listings, market information, and other data that nonmembers must struggle to obtain, and
- at the upper end of the scale, a recipient of additional credentials (look for initials on their business cards -- for example, NAR offers such credentials as a "GRI" (Graduate Realtors Institute) or the even more advanced "CRS" (Certified Residential Specialist).) You won't find too many agents with such credentials!
For recommendations, go to friends, family, and coworkers -- particularly those who've recently bought or sold a home. Run the prospective agents' names past other agents, such as those you meet at open houses, to see what kind of reaction you get. Once you've got a short list of promising real estate agents, let each know you want to interview him or her for around 30 to 45 minutes, preferably in person. You'll be testing not only the agent's knowledge, but his or her cooperativeness and punctuality.
Below are some questions you can ask a real estate agent to determine whether the agent's experience and success rate are suited to your needs. Also add your own questions. For example, if you're looking for help buying a foreclosure, or a newly built house in a development or a condo, you'll want to make sure your agent has experience with such properties.
- How many homes have you found for buyers in the last year? Ask for the addresses of these recent transactions, and find out the selling prices. This will help you see whether the agent truly works with clients similar to you and how successful the agent has been.
- How can you help me afford the home I want? Ask the agent what type of home you can expect for the amount you've budgeted and for suggestions on special and new mortgage loan programs and recommended mortgage brokers. Also ask about recent insurance and tax changes.
- How will you communicate with me? Will the agent call you or use email? How often will you hear from him or her? Once a week is a minimum in a stable market, but daily check-ins could be necessary in a hot market. And how quickly can he or she respond to calls and questions from you? If you're eager to get in and see a house, you may not want to wait a day.
- How do you organize your work? Ask to see logs, checklists, worksheets, and other tools or documents the agent uses to keep track of the various details -- from the house search and financing through negotiating an offer and closing the deal.
- How will your commission be paid? If the agent will be representing you exclusively, ask whether he or she expects you to pay the commission instead of the seller. (This is rare; you don't have to agree to this in order to have an agent represent you exclusively.)
- Who are some past clients I can call as references for you? If you think you might hire this agent, be sure to follow through with these calls!
During the interview, ask the agent questions from the list above. Consider how well the agent listens to your concerns and answers your questions clearly and directly. Only agree to hire an agent after you've found one you're enthusiastic about. Then, commit your agreement to writing, and play fair by not signing up additional agents to help you.
For more on finding and choosing the best agent, including checklists of interview questions you can print out from a CD-ROM, see the book Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart.