by Nick Gromicko, CMI®
When you announce your desire to buy a house, agents will come out of the woodwork to offer their services. While these agents may seem interchangeable, their experiences, skills, personalities and specialties vary significantly. As a buyer, you should devote some time to sifting through the plethora of agents for one who suits your unique needs. After you have selected several promising agents, plan to ask them each a handful of questions as if they were interviewing for a job -- because they are! -- and then, after careful consideration, choose the agent who seems to be the best fit for your needs.
Answers to the following questions will give you a better feel for the agent:
- With what real estate markets are you most familiar?
Real estate, like any industry, is full of generalists, niche specialists, and everything in between. If you are looking to buy a rental unit with enough land to plant an organic farm, for instance, you might not be served well by an agent who is used to dealing with clients who have more conventional needs.
- What makes you different from your competitors? Where do your strengths lie?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions that you would normally ask a job applicant during an interview. They may reply with “the many years of experience I bring to the table,” or tout the “pulse” they have on the town. Ask them to elaborate and be specific.
- What price range do you work best with?
Don’t expect an agent who is used to dealing with multi-million dollar homes to find you a cheap fixer-upper.
- What are your fees?
Real estate agents normally get paid a commission when a house is sold, so there’s no reason to pay them anything up front.
- Do you own real estate yourself?
Agents who have experience buying and operating property for themselves will be more knowledgeable, especially if you’re looking to buy investment property.
- How long have you been involved in real estate?
Experience is always a good thing, as the agent will better understand long-term market trends and have had more time to hone their skills and learn the nuances of an area’s market. Younger agents, on the other hand, are usually more proficient with computers and other technology that have become more relied upon for house-hunting.
- Do you work full- or part-time?
Generally, you're better off with a full-time agent who keeps up with the local market, financing considerations and laws.
- How many buyers are you currently working with?
Because competition for clients is fierce, an agent might agree to work with you even if they’re already occupied by a large number of clients. Find someone who can commit enough time and energy to your needs, and make sure to ask how often you may expect to hear from them. You may also ask how many transactions the agent was involved in the previous year.
- Know what a contract says before you sign it. In some states, exclusivity contracts are used to bind a client to a particular agent so that the agent’s time and energy isn’t wasted on a client who’s juggling multiple agents. The agent, in turn, has reason to devote herself more fully and confidently to the signed client. Agents might push you to sign this contract, or even refuse to work with you if you don't sign. Regardless, understand the contract’s exact terms, especially those that allow you to get out of the contract prematurely, if needed. You may also negotiate a shorter contract duration.
- Ask for references. You may request the contact information of previous clients if they are not offered up front. Contact these previous clients if you wish, but be aware that dissatisfied clients probably won’t be included in the list.
- Never forget that agents are salespeople, and their mission is to get you to buy a house as soon as possible. They may explain that interest rates are on the rise, the current season is the best time to buy, or a particular property is a “steal.” If you want to take your time, don’t let them convince you otherwise.
- Beware of dual agencies. The term "agency" refers to the relationship that a buyer or seller has with their agent. Buyers should look for buyers' agents who work exclusively with buyers, rather than dual agents, who represent the buyer and the seller. The agent should tell you if they are representing the seller, which would represent a conflict of interest.
- Choose an agent who works on your time schedule. If you can look at homes only on Tuesdays and your agent doesn't work that day, keep looking.
- Assess your home inspector. Agents will likely recommend a particular home inspector to perform a thorough inspection of a house before it is sold, which will alert you to any undisclosed dangers, such as lead paint, structural weaknesses, or defective wiring that may be dangerous or costly to remedy. The inspector’s report can be used to compel the seller to lower their price significantly or as cause to back out of the deal entirely. Due to the importance of the inspection report, the choice of the inspector is at least as important as the real estate agent. Fortunately, the selection process is somewhat easier, as InterNACHI members are the best in the business.
In summary, spend some time choosing a real estate agent who has the experience and knowledge that will suit your needs.