If you've identified a few real estate agents who seem like good candidates to sell your house and have checked out their websites, the next step is to arrange an in-person meeting. Allow at least one hour to show the agent your home and discuss possible prices and issues in the sale. Here are the topics you want to discuss:
You should only consider someone who is 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). Ask whether the agent is a member of a respected trade association such as the National Association of Realtors (NAR), or has special credentials, such as "CRS" (Certified Residential Specialist).
Look for at someone who has at least three years' experience selling residential real estate, and a track record selling homes like yours—both in terms of geographic area and type of property. For example, someone who has sold lots of new homes in a planned unit development might not be the best match for your 50-year old suburban ranch house.
A real estate agent might come to your meeting with a comparable market analysis (CMA) of homes similar to yours (in size, amenities, and location) that are either on the market or have sold within a reasonable recent time period (ideally three months, but no more than six). A CMA should also include comparable houses that were listed but expired (likely because the house was priced too high and no one bought).
Of course, the agent might justifiably wait to actually tour your house to prepare the CMA, but you can certainly ask for a ballpark estimate of selling price at that time. Also, when it's close to the date you actually list your house, the agent will update the CMA and suggest a range of prices.
You'll want to ask lots of questions about the CMA and make sure you feel the listing price seems reasonable. Unless it's a seller's market, with little competition and lots of buyer demand, be careful not to overprice the house. Underpricing is usually less of a concern, as prospective buyers will spot a bargain, swarm in, and drive the price up. Whatever you do, don't choose the agent who thinks they can get the highest price for your house! They might be just trying to get your business with big promises.
Also do your own homework on home sales, by checking out websites containing real estate listings, such as www.realtor.com, by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), and websites that collect data on actual selling prices, such as Zillow or Trulia. For more on the subject, see Listing Your House: What List Price Should You Set?
Asking for listing and sales dates and prices (including addresses) will give you a good sense of the agent's recent success at selling homes. If there's a big gap between the listing price and the selling price of homes the agent sold in the past year (in other words, the homes have sold for less than the agent listed them at), the agent might be unrealistic when recommending a listing price. Or if the agent's listings took an unusually long time to sell (if at all), this could tell you the house wasn't priced appropriately (or marketed enough).
Of course, if none of the agent's properties are similar to yours, this might not be a good match.
Find out how the agent plans to bring your house to the attention of interested buyers—and why the agent believes past strategies will work for your home. If the agent doesn't do open houses or take out ads in local newspapers, and you think those would be good ways to sell your house, find out why.
A good agent will provide specific advice on what would make your house more marketable—such as a major downsizing of house furniture, yard cleanup, painting, and other spiffing up. In cases of older properties, the agent might suggest you arrange a professional inspection by an experienced contractor so that you are aware of any hidden problems. (This won't be the same person who does an inspection for the buyer. See Getting a Home Inspection for details.)
Ask the agent to provide at least three names of current or former clients who sold their homes within the last year and would be willing to talk with you. Then call them and ask how they liked working with the agent, whether there were any problems, and any other relevant questions.
Expect to pay somewhere 5% to 6% of the home's sales price (to be split between your agent and the buyer's agent; either 50-50 or, more often, with the buyer's agent receiving 2.5%). The exact amount could vary depending on many factors, including the selling price of your home. See Negotiate the Agent's Commission When Selling Your House for details.
Your final decision should be based on the above factors as well as intangibles, such as how easy you feel it will be to work with a particular agent and how organized and detail-oriented the agent seems.
If an agent comes late to your initial meeting and is interrupted by constant phone calls, think twice. (Of course, if the agent is in the middle of closing a deal, there might be urgent calls the agent needs to take, but the agent should explain this before you start your interview.) Or if you sense an agent is overbooked and won't provide the time attention you'll need, keep looking. You don't want your agent to push you off to a less experienced associate owing to a lack of time to handle key details of your house sale.
Once you've found the agent you want to work with, you'll draw up a formal listing agreement that spells out details, including the commission you'll pay.
For more on finding and choosing the best agent to sell your home, including checklists of interview questions, see Selling Your House: Nolo's Essential Guide, by Ilona Bray.