Updated Oct 18, 2022
Every home buying and selling experience is unique. The market will change, as will your needs, your budget, time frame, tastes, and the length and depth of your search.
When you’re looking for a real estate agent, whether you’re a buyer or seller, you want to make sure you find one whose personality jives with yours, whose working style and responsiveness are sympatico, one who has experience with buyers or sellers in situations similar to your own.
We talked to experts in the field about how you can choose the right agent. Here’s what we found.
Bottom line, the best place to get a referral for a great real estate agent is from someone who has had a first-hand experience working with them.
If you’re relocating and aren’t well connected in your destination, ask your new employer for a recommendation or start with a real estate agent review site (like Zillow, Yelp, or even Google) to find prospects.
But one thing you shouldn’t do: hire a close friend or family member as your real estate agent. The buyer or seller’s relationship with their agent is a business relationship and shouldn’t be encumbered by emotional bonds. Both agent and client will perform better if there’s no friendship on the line.
The first thing you’ll notice when you start looking for a real estate agent is how responsive they are. In 2018, there’s not a lot of excuses for an agent who doesn’t respond within a reasonable period of time.
“Clients are accustomed to instant gratification, and it is the agents’ duty to make themselves available accordingly,” says Allison Bernstein of Suburban Jungle. “With all the technology and information we have at our fingertips, there is no reason for any delay in communications.”
A agent who’s responsive will likely be able to help you pivot your search, jump on hot properties, and likely has the availability to give you the attention you deserve.
You will want to make sure you and your real estate agent agree on preferred mode of communication. If you prefer texting, make sure your agent can accommodate. If you’re an email person, your agent should agree to make email the primary means of communication.
Before you choose a real estate agent, make sure you like them and are comfortable working closely.
Bill Golden of RE/Max Metro Atlanta Cityside says, “Aside from all the vetting you should do, there is also the question of whether a particular Realtor is a good match for you. The relationship with your Realtor can be very involved, and emotions often run high during the process. Make sure you’re comfortable with them, and feel like you can trust each other. A Realtor may meet all the qualifications you’ve set out, but if you don’t feel comfortable with each other, things can go south quickly.”
Agents have formal certifications and specializations and you’ll want to make sure yours is appropriately licensed in your state. Some professionals are specialized to work with those over the age of 50 (Seniors Real Estate Specialist) or to relocate military personnel (Military Relocation Professional), but there are three broader terms you often hear: real estate agent, Realtor, and broker.
Real estate agent: A person who is licensed to help people buy or sell residential or commercial real estate. Real estate licenses are issued by state, and requirements will vary.
Realtor: A Realtor is a real estate agent who is a member of the National Association of Realtors (NAR). To become a Realtor, agents must be active in the field, have no formal actions against them, no recent or pending bankruptcy, and must pay an application fee and annual dues to the NAR. The NAR offers a number of more specializations as well.
Broker: A broker is a licensed real estate agent who has completed additional education in the state where they are licensed to work—they typically own or manage real estate agencies. Brokers can work independently, but all agents must work under brokers.
Some real estate professionals will be more experienced in dealing with specific buying and selling scenarios than others will. First-time home buyers may need a little more hand-holding as they enter the market for the first time, those relocating will need a real estate agent with extensive understanding of the nuance of a city and its neighborhoods and lifestyles.
Whether you’re downsizing, looking to buy a foreclosure, or ready to start a family, you’ll want to choose a real estate agent who has extensive experience working with similar buyers and sellers. If you’re selling a single-family home, make sure your agent doesn’t typically represent condo sales. If you’re moving to the suburbs, don’t choose a real estate agent whose connections are all in the city center.
Responsiveness may be affected by how much the agent has to give. You’ll want to make sure they keep a steady stream of business but also that they don’t bite off so much that they can’t give you the attention you deserve.
“I would look for somebody who’s middle of the road between seven and twenty transactions a year,” says Lance McHan of Keller Williams. “My reason is they have a level competency but yet they’re not so busy where they’re passing me off to their assistant or their transaction coordinator.”
Some real estate agents work in the industry only part-time, which will affect the number of transactions they handle each year, but if you’re new to home buying or selling or are looking for a very specific type of property—you should carefully vet that part-time agent to ensure they do have the working knowledge and connections you need.
“An agent’s job is to know the entire market cold,” says Allison Bernstein. “They need to research and learn all things that may or may not pertain to the needs and desires of the client, before the meeting—not DURING the meeting. The right agent should know pricing history, market comps, and all things currently on the market. If they are not able to provide comprehensive market insight the client is not getting a value add.”
Julie Dawson Williams, owner of ERA Dawson Bradford Co. Realtors, notes that an agent should show you some hard evidence of the market knowledge and research. “Be wary of agents who quickly agree with your selling price without providing the market research to support that price. A true real estate professional provides sellers with an analysis of comparable sales and homes currently on the market that will compete with your home. They will guide you in the selection of the most strategic pricing position for your home.”
A knowledgeable agent is especially important in cities where coop boards and local laws govern so much of a real estate transaction.
In highly competitive cities like San Francisco or New York, you’ll want an agent who knows the neighborhood where you’re shopping inside and out. “If you are a buyer it is important to know how well the agent knows the neighborhoods that you are interested in,” says Sheila Trichter of Warburg Realty. “In Manhattan it is essential that your broker knows and understands the boards in the buildings in the neighborhoods…You want to know how much experience your broker has and you want to know if your broker has worked and sold in the neighborhoods where you hope to buy.
Read their reviews—and not just the ones they post on their site. What do clients say about their connections, process, helpfulness, knowledge, and responsiveness? Sites like Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, and even Google and Yelp are great places to find third-party reviews from clients.
You’ll also want an agent who is well connected—many sales are made through networks of agents. You can look for awards and designations they hold, especially awards local to the area where you’re looking. You can also simply ask a potential real estate agent about how they use their connections to make sales or find listings.
Finally, make sure your agent can point to specific proof points of their success. Ask for referrals and ask to speak to past clients, ask to see stats that reflect their professional success, ask for examples of how they protected their clients’ best interests. An agent that is an advocate should be able to show you some hard evidence of their success.
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