Buying a house is the largest financial transaction you will probably ever go through. When you are dealing with major decisions and financial responsibility, you want people on your team that listen to you and that you can trust. You need to feel comfortable, because you will spend a lot of time with these people, and some of it will be very stressful. Having been a real estate agent over the last five years, I can give you some advice.
Hire a real estate agent through referrals
The most common way to find an agent is through a referral from a friend. You get along with your friend, so you may think you will get along with your friend’s agent. This is not always the case, though. Call these referrals, and ask a lot of questions (keep reading to find out what to ask). If you click with one, that’s great. If not, don’t feel obligated to work with them. You have to be able to establish a trusting relationship with someone.
Hire a real estate agent via sign or an advertisement
One word: don’t.
The listing agent and ‘duel agency’
The listing agent has a legal contract with homeowners to represent them and will not have your best interests at heart. Also, when an agent has what we call ‘both sides’ (buyer and seller), they become a ‘facilitator’, not representing either side. The agent cannot advise either side, but passes messages back and forth between parties. It’s called dual agency, and both parties must agree to it by signing a form before an offer is ever put on the home.
I had an opportunity to do this with a piece of land I had listed. I explained to both parties that I would be the facilitator and not be able to represent either of them. I told them I would share each other’s decisions with the other, and that they would have to ‘duke it out’. That made them both chuckle. Ultimately, the buyer was more comfortable being represented by another agent, and we got the land sold with both parties feeling fully represented and comfortable.
If an agent is a member of their local board, they will have access to the Multiple Listing Service. S/he will be able to search for all the homes in their area. If you have your heart set on a house you drove by, s/he will be able to find that home and show it to you. You do NOT need the listing agent to show it to you or get more information from.
Find a real estate agent who specializes in your price range
Before you go looking for an agent and a home, go to a mortgage broker or bank, and get a pre-qualification letter. This information will tell you what price home you can afford. Then find an agent familiar with homes in that price range.
I specialized in the $200,000-400,000 range. I knew them all, their neighborhoods, building materials and styles, stats on sales, listings and days on market, and the difference between the asking and sales prices. That was my market! One summer, I had some new buyers looking for an $800,000 home in a nearby town. I was definitely out of my element. I wasn’t familiar with the town, the roads, the homes, or the price range. I was fortunate to team up with another agent in the area, and we worked together. I learned a lot, but it’s easier to have an agent who knows his or her own market.
What to look for in a real estate agent
You want an agent who listens to your needs – financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, family. Interview several. They should be taking notes when you are talking. They should be asking a lot of questions so they are very clear on your home-buying criteria. Be sure they explain complex things fully so you understand. There is a lot of legal wording in a real estate contract, so be sure you will know exactly what it says and what it means. The home buying process can be confusing and overwhelming, and you need to understand what is happening throughout.
Make sure their work hours are in sync with times you are available to go house hunting. If you only have Sundays off, be sure your agent will be willing to work Sundays. The same goes for evenings. I have shown many homes after 6 and in the dark, because my clients worked full time jobs.
Questions to ask a prospective real estate agent
1) How many years have you been in the business? Full time? Part time? Obviously, the longer the career, the more experience. A full time agent learns more, but may be too busy to give you their full attention. A part-time agent might learn more slowly, but they have more time to devote to you. One situation is not better than the other. You have to decide which you prefer, and you’ll figure that out by speaking to various agents.
2) How many buyers have you had in the past year, and how many of those transactions did you close? In today’s slow market, this may be moot, but ask it anyway. Ask for references, and call them. Find out how professional the agent was, if they communicated well and often enough, if things were explained well, if they were pleasant, and if the new homeowners felt the agent was honest and up front with them.
3) Do you work with buyers or sellers mainly? There are buyer brokerages that work exclusively with buyers. This is a great idea, but those agents may not be the best for you. On the other hand, they know the buying process intimately and are not torn between buyers and sellers.
3) Have you had any complaints filed against you? Call the local and state real estate boards and ask. These agencies can also verify information you have received from the agents.
4) How often do you communicate with clients, and what is your favorite mode? Do they call, text, email or make appointments for face-to-face meetings? As the buyer, what do you prefer? Let them know how often you would like to hear from them. Ask if they will be sending you all the new listings that fit your criteria. This can usually be done automatically.
5) Ask about the market. You can verify this information with the local board, which is not trying to sell you anything. They will provide you with facts. Find out how the market has changed in the last year, two years, five years. You can make informed decisions when you know what the market is doing.
6) What’s your specialty? Do they specialize in condos, second homes, certain neighborhoods, green homes, farms and rural properties, urban areas? If you know what you are looking for, this answer can help you narrow down your search.
Google the agents you are interviewing. They should have a website and perhaps a blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Read what they write, which may feel more personal than what they say on the phone.
Finally, take your time! You need to feel comfortable and able to trust your agent to get you through the maze of the home buying process.
Congratulations! You are on your way to becoming a homeowner!