There’s a lot at stake when you sell your house, especially if you’re under a tight deadline to move. Sellers pay a lot of money for an agent’s service (5% to 6% of the home’s selling price is typical), so choose carefully.
Good real estate agents do a lot of work to earn their commission, saving you time and energy, and hopefully getting your home sold quickly and for a good price. Here are some of the main tasks that agents handle for sellers:
Recommending the appropriate listing price. Agents have access to important information on sales of comparable houses – including more recent sales information than is publicly accessible online -- and will suggest a list price that they think will best attract buyers to your home. It’s to an agent’s advantage to sell at as high a price as possible (in order to get the highest commission), so if the recommended price is less than you hoped, remember the agent is either being realistic, or deliberately setting the price low in order to bring in prospective buyers and perhaps prompt some competitive bidding. If you overprice your house, it may sit unsold for months, until no one wants to look at it anymore.
Helping you prepare the house for sale. A good agent will have lots of advice on how to make your home look its best to buyers. Depending on your house, market, and budget, an agent may recommend you hire a stager (see the Nolo article “Is Home Staging Worth the Cost?” for more on this) to transform your house or simply suggest a little de-cluttering. One agent we know spent three hours, going room by room with her client, providing detailed advice from what furniture to put in storage to what color towels to put in the bathroom. (The agent’s advice worked, because the seller got an offer the first day the house was on the market). Agents can also provide useful referrals to painters, carpet cleaners, and repair people who can help ready your house for sale.
Advertising the property for sale and showing it to prospective buyers. You want as many buyers as possible to know that your house is on the market—and better yet, to want to see it. Agents typically arrange to have the house photographed (inside and out); write ad copy, and advertise the house by posting online (in the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS, and other sites); send out flyers, hold open houses, or whatever is appropriate to your house and market. The agent will show the house to interested buyer privately, and/or at open houses.
Ensuring buyers receive proper disclosures. Most states require sellers to disclose certain known problems with their home, such as a leaky roof, to prospective purchases. See the Nolo article “Required Disclosures When Selling U.S. Real Estate” for more on this subject. Your agent will explain state disclosure rules (and local ones, if required) and give you the forms that meet legal requirements. If, however, you feel uncertain about what needs to be disclosed, this is a good time to consult with an attorney.
Reviewing offers and negotiating a deal. Hopefully, your agent’s advice regarding price, staging, and marketing your house will pay off and you’ll have at least one or two offers to consider. Your agent will review all the details of offers with you, especially any contingencies, such as buyer financing and inspections. See the Nolo article “Contingencies to Include in Your House Purchase Contract” for details. Your agent will explain areas of concern regarding the buyer’s offer and advise you on how to respond (perhaps by counteroffering on the price or other terms). If you accept an offer, your agent will work with the buyer’s agent to iron out the terms of the deal.
Making sure everything gets done by the closing date. Once you accept a buyer’s offer, there are still many steps leading up to the closing, such as assuring that all contract contingencies are met and released by the dates stated in the agreement. Your agent will work with you, the buyer’s agent, and other professionals involved in the transaction (such as an inspector or a real estate attorney) to coordinate all this.
Here’s where to get recommendations for an agent who will actively sell your house for the best price—and as quickly as possible.
The agent who helped you buy your house. If you were thrilled with this person, consider using him or her to help sell your house (assuming this agent works with sellers). If your former agent primarily works with buyers, ask for a recommendation for a seller’s agent.
Family, friends, and colleagues . Make sure these are not just agents who are friends of friends, but agents who have recently sold a home for one of your contacts.
Your accountant, attorney, or other local professional. They have probably worked with real estate professionals and may have good recommendations.
Real estate agencies in the area that represent a lot of homes like yours. If you come up short on recommendations, you may have to do some additional research. Check the websites of agencies that look like good prospect based on their house listings; you can find a lot of details on homes that the agency has sold (for what price, how long on the market, and so on).
Once you have the names of two or three likely prospects, check out the agents’ websites for details on their background, experience, and track record selling homes like yours—both in terms of geographic area and type of property. Call the agents and explain your needs over the phone. Assuming you’re satisfied with the call, the next step is to schedule interviews with the best prospects before choosing one who seems like a good match. See the Nolo article “How to Interview a Prospective Agent to Sell Your Home” for details.
For more on finding and choosing the best agent and other advice on selling your home, see the Nolo book Selling Your House: Nolo's Essential Guide, by Ilona Bray.