How To Find a Real Estate Agent

Referral Is Still the Best Approach, As With Doctors and Dentists

In our current real estate market, arguably the best market for buyers and worst for sellers in several decades in most regions, agents who have stayed the course and remain active have to be a very resilient group. And you want one of them to help you buy or sell a home, right? Here are some of the best ways to find the perfect agent.

Right up front, I want to mention anxiety. Whether you are a veteran or a first-time buyer or seller, market conditions probably make you anxious and apprehensive. And this is exactly why you need to select not just any agent, but the agent with the best skill set and background to deal effectively with your specific needs. So I gotta tell you: Your anxiety will diminish when you put your fear out of mind and get proactive. You will discover that a lot of people along the path to real estate ownership or divestiture not only want to help you, but are eager to do so. There are agents, escrow officers, inspectors and mortgage brokers you can count upon. And the agent you select knows how to find the rest of them.

There are several methods, all reasonable, to locate and retain an agent. Let's look at the leading ways and after you consider them, also consider an unusual approach (some might say radical) that I heartily recommend above the others. I describe it following these usual approaches:

  1. Friends, neighbors and co-workers are glad to recommend agents. Be sure to ask why. Avoid agents who are merely relatives or close friends unless there are solid reasons for the recommendation. Top agents have relatives and friends, of course, who regularly trumpet them.
  2. Study the real estate section of your local newspaper for several successive weeks. If you are planning to sell, you'll quickly learn which agents believe in marketing via advertising. Although these agents are trying to sell property, it's axiomatic that most of them also know how to help buy property. You'll qualify them when screening begins, described later.
  3. Few agents specialize as either a seller or a buyer agent. In fact you'll want an agent with a portfolio of experience on both sides. A good way to screen is to visit open houses and chat with agents on duty. You'll encounter seasoned veterans and eager, talented rookies. In our tough market, these agents are serious survivors. Chemistry plays an important role; if you "click" with someone, it's worth checking him or her out for the job. Well-trained committed rookies are worth your consideration just as much as veterans, often with the added bonus of excellent computer skills.
  4. Note that I've not suggested using agent search tools at real estate association websites or at real estate company websites. Using Realtor.com, for example, a typical search returns dozens to hundreds of names. You could throw darts at the list, or you could invest hours checking them out based on subjective criteria. The approach I will soon reveal is based on just the opposite. It's based on objective criteria.

If you are a buyer, poor market conditions for sellers may be terrific conditions for you. At the current time, buyer interest is growing -- the desire to own a home is increasing -- but many are reluctant to jump in because they don't know when the value slide will bottom out. Everyone is watching as the impact of foreclosures reduces values. However, most markets seem to be absorbing the impact of bad loans, bringing some slight relief to homeowners.

Answering the value slide question in your market is the top question you'll ask when you find a suitable agent. This is true for both buyers and sellers. Serious sellers want to move their property so they can relocate, retire or get another home. They look to their agent for solid advice on pricing via a careful computer-based market analysis. Buyers want a great home at a value that will appreciate over time. They want assurance that the price they are about to offer is a smart investment, and they plan to stay in the home at least three years, hopefully longer. And, reasonable sellers and buyers know that the word "guarantee" can never be included in the deal.

Finding active agents isn't hard, as I've shown. But qualifying them so that your selection represents a good choice is somewhat more difficult. So I've discovered an admittedly unusual method to ease the difficulty and I've asked agents if it makes sense. And it does.

My basis for writing this article is more than 25 years' experience as a marketing adviser, helping realtors and agents sell homes. And my life partner is a long-time agent, mortgage specialist and escrow officer. She's as smart as they come and in 2003, she actually predicted the current downturn as she watched unqualified buyers take out subprime mortgages (and greedy mortgage brokers arrange them).

Lest you think I'm going to go on and on about this, think again. Here is my radical advice for finding a real estate agent and it applies to both buyers and sellers.


The Agent Should Be One Tough Cookie
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This method, as described, helps buyers locate a great agent. But it works for sellers, too. Just change a few words.

  1. Using Google Search, type this into the search window: "escrow companies [city, town or county + state]" For example, the entry "escrow companies Vero Beach, Florida" returns the following:
  2. If too few companies are shown, click "More results..." Then, copy three names and phone numbers of likely-sounding firms. For example, you might select: Fidelity National Title, Alliance Title and Seaboard Title.
  3. Now, call each company in turn, conducting the following dialogue:
    • "I'd like to speak with your escrow manager, thanks."
    • "Mr. or Ms. Manager, I'd like to talk briefly with your most experienced escrow officer, the person best qualified to handle single family home transactions. Can you tell me who that is, and connect me?"
    • Once connected, "I'm looking for a real estate agent (who does business with your firm) to represent me in the purchase of a home (or sale of a home). I want a highly experienced agent who knows the area and how to represent buyer (or seller) interests. This should be a person you've seen in action at escrow closings. Can you suggest two or three names?"
  4. Your objective is to get five or more names and phone numbers, each representing a professional recommendation by a very good judge of agent talent: a professional escrow officer. Many officers will be reluctant to provide a single name, more inclined to suggest two or three names in order to remain fair and unbiased.
  5. Your list awaits interviews of the candidates. Before you start, you need to complete a little research and build a plan that includes key questions. In effect, you are behaving like a hiring manager, seeking to make the best choice for the job of representing your interest in the purchase of a home. Here are my recommended steps, which you can modify to your needs:
    • Perform a Google search on each name to uncover agent websites and other related background. This will give you a general idea of activity level and experience for each name, and may help eliminate names that are far afield from your interests. For example, you may find an agent who specializes in horse properties when you simply want a 3 bedroom 2 bath home in a nice neighborhood with highly rated schools. Or the opposite.
    • Review agent websites with a critical eye and skeptical mind. If you detect specialization that is not suited to your needs, you may cross that agent off the list if other choices abound.
    • Look at other "hits" critically as well. You might uncover awards, charitable and community activism, even letters to the editor that ring your bell.
    • Now, prepare a list of interview questions that'll help you conduct a level evaluation. For example:
      • How many hours do you work each week as an agent?
      • Do you have another job?
      • How do you keep abreast of new listings?
      • How long have you been selling in the area in which I wish to purchase?
      • What's your ratio of homes bought vs. homes sold?
      • How many transactions have you been involved with during the last 5 years? 1 year?
      • What is your knowledge of the local neighborhoods, schools, transportation and shopping?
      • What are your requirements for working with us? For example, a buyer's agent may insist that you prove your creditworthiness by getting fully pre-approved, evidenced by an appropriate lender's letter, and that you have "earnest money" (a cash deposit) ready to go into escrow for the right deal. Or a seller's agent may strongly suggest pricing realism and willingness to improve curb appeal and staging.
      • Can you provide references from both sellers and buyers?
      • What is your availability over our time frame?

      Now you are almost ready. Add key questions of your own about schools, neighborhoods, homeowner dues, number of foreclosures in the area, stats on home prices, et cetera. Then start making those calls, keeping notes. Before long you'll have a short list. Set up meetings, conduct interviews to refine questions and answers and determine if the chemistry is good. When you evaluate all criteria for 3 to 5 interviews, you'll be prepared to make that important agent selection decision.


Sellers and Buyers Need to Be Tough Cookies, Too
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It's your money, and it doesn't come with instructions. Whether you are seller or buyer, you need to protect your interests by questioning and studying the market. For sellers, market knowledge plays a substantial role, and you should factor this into selection criteria. It's important to achieve every advantage, and finding the right qualifications and chemistry, as well as neighborhood expertise, makes a nice package.

Getting tough means getting smart. Online tools abound, such as Zillow.com and Owners.com. These tools allow entry of a ZIP code and other criteria to look at properties and values. The latter is subject to error, as these sites use often-incorrect tax base data as their starting point. Knowing this, you can get a general or ballpark idea of value in any given neighborhood, and perhaps even locate candidate homes to preview once you've entrusted yourself to an agent. To improve a general value estimate, use site tools to select recent sales (6 months to a year back) on the comparables list, and use only those as a guide to value on a per-square-foot basis. Whether you are planning to sell or buy, you'll be armed with genuine comparables for that inevitable price conversation. When your selected agent reviews and then refines your data based on expertise, you'll have the smarts to proceed.

If I had to rate one quality above all others in a seller's agent, I'd put "marketing" at the top of the list. Marketing is the justified expenditure of resources (money and time) to promote something in order to effect a transaction.

In a buyer's market, marketing gains importance as sellers compete for scarce customers. When inventory climbs and the number of buyers declines, marketing is what makes the difference between 16 months vs. 6 months on the market. Marketing sets the pricing strategy, the expectation, presentation, curb appeal and the promotional tactics ranging from advertising to open houses, even to incentives. If your agent insists on painting over the pumpkin-colored walls in the living room, that's marketing for staging purposes.

If I had to rate one quality of marketing above all others, I'd put "price strategy" at the top of the list. As long as we know that buyers are out there (and they are), correctly priced properties get attention quicker when it's part of a promotional campaign using other tactics such as advertising and incentives. So, you'll want to make pricing strategy the chief topic to be discussed by agent-candidates. And prove your toughness by being prepared to discern "BS" from solid advice.

Price gets buyers to the curb. Curb appeal brings them inside. Emotion keeps them there. So a second topic to discuss is staging. How will each candidate stage your home to build the emotion? You need every advantage in the current market.

OK, I think we've saturated this topic with ample advice, plus a professional way to find and qualify agents. I've given key suggestions on chief topics to discuss when you interview. Now it's up to you. Got phone?

 

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