Twenty years ago I started looking for my first house in Los Angeles. Not knowing where to start, I found my real estate agent through his "homes for sale" ad featured in a newspaper. He seemed qualified and we hit it off. Next thing I knew, we were driving around in his BMW, looking at house after house.
Luckily for me, everything worked out. That real estate agent helped me buy the perfect house and my homeowner’s adventure began. I recently bought my fourth house – clear across the country in Boston. Things sure have changed. Long gone are the days when a buyer’s agent carted you around in a fancy car. Using real estate websites like Zillow.com, Trulia.com, and Redfin.com, you can now compare prices, see photos, and learn about neighborhoods before even setting foot in a house. Nonetheless, a real estate agent is still necessary to give you an edge in a competitive market. Not only can he help you beat the crowds to house viewings, but he can potentially save you thousands of dollars by negotiating the lowest final price.
Now the question becomes: How should you choose the best real estate agent, especially when you’re about to buy your first house and just about everyone you know has someone to recommend? For starters, make sure you choose a licensed and educated agent. Equally important: Make sure you hire a buyer’s agent who represents you and not the seller. This seems obvious but if you work with a sales agent that you find at an open house, for example, he is likely working for the seller and not you – meaning his fiduciary responsibility is to get the highest price and best deal for his client. With this said, it’s important to interview top contenders before you settle on the right buyer’s agent for you. To help you kindly weed out that part-time agent who lives 50 miles away from you and also happens to be your Aunt Millie’s best friend, here are some questions you may want to ask serious prospects:
What is your average number of transactions per year?
How long have you been in business and have you sold and purchased homes for clients in my neighborhood of interest?
How many clients do you work with at any one time?
What do you know about home values in the areas? Are they going up, static, dipping down? Does the average buyer pay asking price?
Can you discuss the attributes of a particular neighborhood, such as the quality of the schools, shopping options and median incomes?
Can you provide a list of buyers who you have represented recently?
If I decide to move down the line, can you help me with an exit strategy and along these lines, can you help me choose a house that will increase in value in a neighborhood with a strong resale history?
After you’ve got the nitty-gritty questions out of the way, it’s time to look at whether the agent is the best fit for your personality and disposition. For instance, if you have an anxious personality, you may want to work with someone who is mellow and can put your mind at ease. If you need extra handholding, you’ll be better off with an agent who only works with a small clientele at a time.
When I chose my most recent buyer’s agent, I made sure I could check the "yes" box for the list of questions below. By interviewing agents and calling their references, make sure the answers to these questions meet your standards:
Is the agent a competent advisor? As a first-time home buyer, you’re new to the house-hunting and buying process. A buyer’s agent should be your ally as well as someone you can turn to for guidance as you search for homes and go through the purchasing process.
Is he accessible? If you see what looks to be the perfect house pop up on Zillow and you want to see it right away, can you call or text your agent on a moment’s notice? Will he either pick up the phone or get back to you immediately?
Is he a shrewd negotiator? Are you confident that your agent can negotiate the best deal for you? On another note, if you place an offer on a house and it goes into a bidding war, is your agent skilled at helping you land the deal?
Is he easy to work with? Even if you get along famously with your agent, you’re not the only one who has to work with him. To this end, do you think sales agents will work well with him? Although it usually boils down to dollars and cents, a sales agent and the home seller may be more inclined to go with a buyer whose agent can help glide the deal over the finish line faster.
Is he honest? Ok, since we’re talking about honesty here, let’s face it: Real estate agents are in the business to sell houses and earn a commission check. Even though you won’t be the one paying this out (the seller typically pays a 5-6% commission, which is split between the seller’s and buyer’s agents), agents have a reputation for doing whatever it takes to sell a house. But keep in mind that it’s your future house and you’re the one about to plunk down a lot of money. With this said, it’s imperative that your agent offers up his honest opinions on things like whether the house is overpriced, the neighborhood is going downhill or that fixer-upper is a diamond in the rough.
Is he well-connected? As a first-time buyer, you may need help finding a quality contractor to do work in your house, an insurance agent to purchase homeowners insurance, or even a real estate attorney. If an agent can put you in touch with people to help you ease into your new home, this can be a major perk.