Whether you're planning to buy or sell property this summer, you may want to work with a real estate agent to guide you through the process. While you may have a neighbor or cousin who works in real estate, it's a good idea to vet potential agents to ensure the best fit for your needs, since it's hardly a one-size-fits-all proposition. Here's a look at questions to ask.
1. How long have you been in the business? First, ask about the agent's experience. "For me, the first thing I want to know is how long have they been in the marketplace," says Rick Harris, regional vice president for the National Association of Realtors and owner of a Coldwell Bankers office in Ashland, Oregon. "Not just how many years, but how many buyers do they work with that have similar needs."
Also consider the difference between a part-time real estate agent who sells a few properties for friends and relatives and someone who treats it as a full-time business venture. As Mirtha Barzaga, a Realtor with Davidson Realty in St. Augustine, Florida, points out, "there [are] a lot of agents out there that do this part time, and they can't provide the level of service that somebody who is doing this day in and day out can provide."
2. What geographic areas and types of properties do you handle? For buyers' and sellers' agents, neighborhood expertise is key, because neighborhood markets can have different quirks. For instance, Harris lives on a small ranch, so he knows the ins and outs of rural properties. "I focus very specifically on my county because rural regulations differ by county," he adds. Historic homes are another area that may require special expertise because of the additional challenges and potential restrictions involved.
Consider not only what agents tell you but also the way they brand themselves online. Herman Chan, a real estate broker with Sotheby's International Realty in San Francisco, says many agents are now active on social media with YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and more, allowing you to do your own research. "If they're branding themselves as a condo specialist and you want to buy a house, they're probably not the right agent for you," he says. An agent who focuses on condominiums may have more familiarity with specific condo buildings than someone who mainly handles single-family homes.
Ask about other types of expertise, too. If you're a veteran or active duty military member, you may want to work with someone who has special training to understand how Veterans Affairs financing works and the challenges of frequently relocating. If you're a first-time buyer, you may want to find someone who works with lots of first-time buyers and has the patience to do some hand-holding.
[Read: A Checklist for First-Time Homebuyers .]
3. How will you communicate with me? A communication lapse of a few hours can mean the difference between an accepted offer and a missed opportunity. With that in mind, choose an agent who responds quickly in the mode of communication that works for you, whether it's email, text, phone or fax. "Quite frankly as Realtors, our job is to be able to communicate the way the consumer wants," Harris says. "Finding a Realtor who will work with you in the way that you need to work is great."
Communication is especially important for buyers house-hunting from afar. Chan has clients in London or Asia who communicate with him via Gchat or FaceTime. He'll also record tours of potential properties and upload the videos to YouTube with a private link.
Also ask who will be your main point of contact, because some busy real estate agents use a team of assistants or sub-agents to handle day-to-day tasks, and you may not have direct access to the agent you choose. "Maybe some people don't care, but I think that's an important question to ask," Chan says.
4. Can you share references? In addition to interviewing potential agents, talk to their buyers or sellers. Barzaga says she has a list of clients she can share with potential clients as needed. "I have had some of my previous clients take them out to lunch and talk to them without me being in front of them so they can get a real picture of that area and the work that I have done for them," she says.
Harris agrees that talking to past clients is a good idea. "By doing that, you take out the self-promotion that everybody in business has to do and get to that relationship to help you understand how well they actually did," he says.
Also ask what portion of business comes from referrals or repeat business. If an agent mainly works on referrals or repeat business, that can be a positive indicator that prior clients were satisfied.
5. What will it cost me to sell this property? Buyers often don't pay commission directly, but sellers often do and the costs can vary from agent to agent. For buyers who worry that bringing up the commission topic will be uncomfortable, Chan suggests phrasing this question as, "What will it cost me to sell this property?" Also ask for a breakdown of estimated closing costs. "If they feel that it's appropriate in your market, some agents throw in free staging or pay for your moving expenses, but you have to compare apples to apples," he says. "If you get someone who's charging less, are you getting reduced services for reduced commission?"
Barzaga suggests asking where the property will be listed and how many websites the agent participates in. Will the agent list the property on his or her YouTube channel or Facebook page too? And if so, how many followers does he or she have?
These questions can help you get a sense of the agent's process and personality, but the right decision may depend on your instinctive reaction. "Follow your intuition," Chan says. "If they feel too slick, it's not a good sign. It's a good sign when you find an agent who can tell it like it is ."
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