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Hiring the right real estate professional is vital to getting the best deal you can, whether you’re buying or selling. Knowing what questions to ask will help you identify if someone is the right fit for you.
Here are some tips that can help you search and find the best real estate agent for you.
What Does a Real Estate Agent Do?
As a prospective home buyer, you might think it’s simple enough to search for homes online, but a good real estate agent can manage the search for you by: staying on top of new listings, scheduling viewings and communicating with the agent representing the seller.
Agents also have access to more home listings than are readily available to the public. When it comes time to buy, a real estate agent can help a buyer navigate the purchase contract, which is critical to how much you will pay for the home over the life of a mortgage loan.
As a home seller, homeowners may be tempted to try to sell on their own, particularly in a hot housing market. But there are still plenty of time-consuming steps, and costs, required to sell a home that an experienced real estate agent manages all the time.
A good seller’s agent will know how to stage and market a home for sale, and which repairs might be necessary and which can be skipped. It’s also important to note that sellers are usually responsible for paying the buyer’s agent, so even if you pass up the chance to have representation of your own you’ll still pay some commission.
Realtor Vs. Real Estate Agent
Real estate agents are licensed by the state, and have to pass a licensing exam after taking a minimum amount of coursework. Agents also can become real estate brokers, which means they have received higher-level training and also passed a broker’s license exam. Many agents and brokers are Realtors, meaning they are members of the National Association of Realtors (NAR). They are bound to follow the Realtor’s Code of Ethics, and consumers can report agents to a local Realtor association if they don’t follow the ethics code.
Steps to Take Before Hiring a Real Estate Agent
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Real estate agents will assume you have prepared for selling and/or buying a home before you hire them. Here are some of the most important early steps to take.
If you’re buying:
- Get pre-approved. A mortgage pre-approval is crucial because it will help determine the price range of your new home search. You don’t want to waste time looking at houses you can’t afford.
- Understand the mortgage loan process. This is especially important for first-time homebuyers. Your budget needs to include a down payment (roughly 20% is best) and earnest money—a deposit once your bid on a home is accepted that can be applied towards closing costs or the down payment. You will also need to account for annual property tax and insurance costs, which you’ll likely pay into an escrow account as part of your monthly mortgage payment.
- List your housing priorities. Know the type of home you want, which features you need and which you’d like to have. It’s also helpful to become familiar with the towns and neighborhoods where you’d like to live, if you’re not already.
If you’re selling:
- Start your search for an agent early. It takes time to get a house ready for sale, especially if it needs major repairs. If you have discussions with a listing agent several months to a year before you want to sell, you can budget and plan for repairs that will pay for themselves, and allow you to get the best price possible.
- Get your home in order. If you have a cluttered house, you will need to clean it up before it goes on the market. Take time to clear out boxes you haven’t touched in decades, old furniture you won’t bring to your new home and items that are just taking up space.
Where to Find a Real Estate Agent
Although word-of-mouth referrals are the most common—and often the most comfortable—way to find a real estate professional, there are other ways to connect with agents who can help you.
Here are a few places to start your search:
- Your personal network. About 40% of home sellers find their agent this way, according to the NAR. Ask everyone you know, including work colleagues and neighbors who recently bought or sold. Don’t forget to use your social media connections as well. A personal referral from someone you trust can carry a lot of weight. It can also give you a realistic look at how the agent manages the process and whether you might work well with that person.
- Research. Review each agent’s online presence, including social media platforms and consumer ratings. Also, scour your neighborhood to see which Realtors and companies are listing homes, and attend open houses so you can meet them in person.
- Official referral sources. Checking with the local chamber of commerce where you plan to buy or sell could be a good way to find agents who are active in their local communities. You can find NAR members through the association’s Find a Realtor form or a search based on geography. Another option is to contact real estate brokerage companies, choosing either a nationally known one or an independent brand that has a strong local presence and reputation.
- Contact a referral agent. A real estate referral agent is ideal if you’re looking for a property out of state and need to hire an agent in that area but don’t have enough connections to find the right one. A referral agent—such as a local agent you already know and trust, like one who has listed your property—will connect you with another agent and receive a cut of the local agent’s commission as a payment.
How to Choose The Right Real Estate Agent
Once you’ve collected names of several agents, you’ll need to consider certain attributes as you narrow the field. Here are key things to consider when hiring a real estate agent.
Realtors who are members of NAR have eight years of experience on average, according to the group. Still, some agents are likely to have more experience than others depending on your needs, such as working with first-time buyers, or doing deals in condos or co-ops.
2. Relevant Certifications
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There are many real estate certifications offered by the NAR, which lead to designations including Accredited Buyer’s Representative (ABR) and Seller Representative Specialist (SRS).These indicate that the agent has pursued additional education and training. Senior citizens who are looking to sell or buy might benefit from working with a Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES).
3. Local Knowledge
An agent who knows the area can best advise on a sales price based on recent trends, such as whether prices have been edging up or down in recent months in your neighborhood. They can also help you narrow down neighborhoods based on your priorities, like being close to good schools or away from busy streets.
4. Marketing and Technical Skills
A listing agent needs to know how to create a strong first impression online because most people shop for homes virtually before they ever visit a property for sale. The photos, videos and descriptive writing need to stand out in the listing, which will get posted on multiple sites, such as the brokerage’s website and consumer-focused sites like Zillow or Redfin. As a buyer, you’ll want an agent who can find newly listed homes at least as quickly as you can, if not faster—and has the resources to find homes for sale that aren’t listed on traditional channels.
An agent who works full-time and isn’t overcommitted with other work is more likely to be available when you call or text, and can set up last-minute visits to homes as soon as they become available. When you interview agents, find out if they’re willing to dedicate enough time for your needs, whether it’s getting a home ready to sell and show on your timetable, or visiting several homes each week.
6. Level of Personal Attention
You’ll need to decide if you want to work with an individual agent or a team of two or more agents. Ideally, an agency team works collaboratively, so someone is always available when you need help. On the other hand, some people decide to work with an individual agent in order to build rapport with one person who is with them every step of the way.
7. Commitment and Contracts
When you hire a listing agent, you’ll sign a listing agreement that typically lasts two to six months. Commissions vary but are usually around 5% to 6% of the purchase price, with half of the amount going to the buyer’s agent. Listing agents may be willing to negotiate their commission.
It’s also important to be sure your agent is working in your best interest. In some cases, agents from the same brokerage wind up representing both the buyer and the seller in a transaction. For buyers, that could be a concern: is your agent working to get you the lowest price possible, or a higher commission?
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As a seller, if you’re comfortable with this arrangement, you could ask for a reduced commission because it’s all going to the same brokerage.
Differences Between Agents for Buyers and Sellers
If you’re getting ready to sell, a listing agent can help you figure out the best price for your home, prepare it for market, advertise it, field offers and close the deal. A real estate professional will have more experience and a broader set of resources to handle all those steps than if you opt to do it yourself.
In the same way, a good buyer’s agent will help you consider the options available, and make sure you’re positioned to submit the winning bid. He or she may also know about off-market listings that may not be available to the general public, and should have a network of contacts for the to-dos that come up during the buying process, such as inspectors or appraisers.
Questions to Ask a Realtor
There are some basic questions you should ask a realtor when selling or buying a home.
If you’re selling a home:
- How much experience do you have? This is a good opportunity to make sure a listing agent has experience with your situation, such as selling a condominium or co-op, helping you sell and buy another home at the same time, and so on.
- Are you certified and do you have a real estate license? The NAR and its affiliate groups have a variety of real estate certifications and designations that agents may carry.
- How are your marketing skills? You may want to make sure the agents you’re interviewing have experience getting your home marketed professionally and to the widest possible audience. This may include using social media.
- How do you like to work? Some agents work as part of a team, others solo. You should make sure your expectations about availability and speed of responses mesh with those of the agent you hire.
If you’re buying a house:
- How much experience do you have? Just like sellers may need a professional that is experienced with their specific type of transaction, you may too. For example, you may want a highly experienced realtor in a certain market of interest if you’re a first-time buyer looking in a highly competitive area where there are likely bidding wars. There are also realtors with more experience in foreclosures and short sales.
- Are you certified and do you have a real estate license? Agents can carry all types of specific certifications: some, like members of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents, may work only with buyers, for example.
- How do you like to work? Some agents work as part of a team, others solo. You should make sure you and your agent understand each other’s expectations about availability and responsiveness.
How to Decide on an Agent
The agent you decide to work with will be your partner during a financially significant and stressful part of your life. Take your time and do as much legwork as you can to make sure you are comfortable relying on this person. Make sure all your questions are answered. And don’t settle; this is one area where relying on personal referrals can mean a lot.