7 tips for picking a real estate agent

Ever wish you could see through the hype to hire the best real estate agent for buying or selling your home?

When it comes to choosing real estate agents, "we don't have the information that we have about other service professionals," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, in Washington, D.C.

However, there are things you can do to pull back the curtain and accurately assess a real estate agent's past performance and potential success with your home. Whether you're the buyer or the seller, here are seven ways you can find out more about your agent before you hire.

1. Talk with recent clients

Ask agents to provide a list of what they've listed and sold in the last year, with contact information, says Ron Phipps, president-elect of the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors. Before you start calling the names, ask the agent if anyone will be "particularly pleased or particularly disappointed," he says.

With past clients, "I'd like to know what the asking price was and then what the sales price was," says William Poorvu, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and co-author of "The Real Estate Game: The Intelligent Guide to Decision-making and Investment."

And, if you're the seller, ask if these past properties are similar to yours in price, location and other salient features, Poorvu says. What you want is someone who specializes in exactly what you're selling.

Another good question for sellers is: How long has the home been on the market?

2. Look up the licensing

States will have boards that license and discipline real estate agents in those states, says Phipps. Check with your state's regulatory body to find out if the person is licensed and if there have been any disciplinary actions or complaints.

3. Pick a winner

Peer-given awards count, says Phipps. One that really means something is the "Realtor of the Year" designation awarded by the state or local branch of the National Association of Realtors.

"These agents are the best as judged by their peers," he says. "That's a huge endorsement."

4. Select an agent with the right credentials

Just as doctors specialize, so do real estate agents. And even generalists will get additional training in some areas. So that alphabet soup after the name can be an indication that the person has taken additional classes in a certain specialty of real estate sales.

If the agent calls himself a Realtor with a capital "R," that means he's a member of the National Association of Realtors. By hiring a Realtor, "the most important thing you get is an agent who formally pledges to support the code of ethics," says Phipps.

Five years ago, one-third of real estate licensees were Realtors, he says. "Now, it's half."

5. Research how long the agent has been in business

You can often find out how long the agent has been selling real estate from the state licensing authority. Or, you can just ask the agent.

"If they haven't been in business five years, they're learning on you and that's not good," says Irwin.

Ultimately, what you're looking for is someone who is actively engaged in a particular area and price range, says Phipps. You'll want to know what knowledge of those two factors they can demonstrate and "what kind of market presence they have," he says.

6. Look at their current listings

Check out an agent's listings online, says Brobeck. Two places to look are the agency's own site and Realtor.com, a website that compiles properties in the Multiple Listing Service into a searchable online database.

Most buyers start their search on the Internet, and you want an agent who uses that tool effectively. "A key thing is an attractive presentation on the Web," says Brobeck.

You also can look at how closely the agent's listings mirror the property you want to buy or sell. Are they in the same area? Is the price range similar? And does the agent have enough listings to indicate a healthy business but not so many that you'd just be a number?

7. Ask about other houses for sale nearby

A good agent should know about other available area properties "off the top of his head," says Irwin, who wrote "Tips & Traps When Buying a Home." Mention a house in your area that's sold recently or is for sale. If the agent knows the property and can give you a few details, that means he or she really knows your area, he says. Says Irwin: "You want someone like that who's on top of the market."
 
Amanda Westrheim

Amanda Westrheim

REALTORĀ®
CENTURY 21 Assurance Realty Ltd.
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