Buying or selling a house is difficult, but toss a lazy or incompetent real estate agent into the equation and it could spell disaster. In this article we'll discuss the ways that prospective buyers and sellers should go about looking for an agent and what they should look for before signing a listing contract.

Narrow the List
Call the local real estate sales office, talk to the branch manager and ask who the top selling agent is for the previous year. This doesn't guarantee that this will be the right agent for you, but it might set you on the right path toward finding an experienced individual to represent you and your interests.

Another approach is to ask friends and/or family members, particularly if they've recently sold or purchased a home, if they have anyone that they would recommend. The logic behind using this approach is that someone else (whom you trust) has already had the opportunity to see the person in action.

With either approach the goal is to isolate someone that has shown a certain level of competency. These efforts will help you to avoid incompetent agents and salespeople.

The Interview Process
The most successful agents tend to be well-spoken, intelligent and presentable in appearance. Smart, savvy business people tend to communicate their sales pitch and knowledge more effectively. They also appear to be more organized and efficient. For these reasons buyers and sellers naturally want to do business with them.

Sellers in particular should also seek out agents whose personalities mesh with theirs. This is because in order for a house to sell quickly and at a favorable price, the listing party and the agent must be on the same page in terms of how they are going to market the property, the price that will be set, and how and when the home will be shown. Coordinating these ideas will be much easier if the parties involved get along on a personal level. (For related reading, see Selling Your Home In A Down Market.)

References
Always ask an agent for references. Good agents should have clients who are willing to attest to their abilities. While it is likely that the agent will only give you the names of people who are likely to say good things about them, take the time to call those people.

You should ask some of the following questions:

  • Was there anything about selling the house through the agent that you didn't like?
  • What could the agent have done better?
  • What was it that convinced you to go with this agent rather than another agent?

Open ended questions such as these tend to elicit candid responses. They will let you know what the agent's strengths and weaknesses are right off the bat.

Timing
While there are competent part-time agents that sell real estate, it is imperative to retain a person that has the ability to show your home at varying hours or, if you are a buyer, to take you out to see properties at a time that is convenient for you.

With this in mind, ask the real estate agent when you are first introduced if real estate is a full-time career. Those who work full time tend to take their jobs more seriously, and are generally more flexible when it comes to showing your home.

Find Someone Who Offers Suggestions
Savvy real estate agents know what sells houses in the area, whether it's a pool, office or some other desirable characteristic. To that end they will be able to make suggestions about which rooms or features should be emphasized or de-emphasized.

During the initial interview, ask the agent what he or she would do to sell the home, or if there are any changes that could me made - cosmetic or otherwise - that would make the house more desirable. More often than not, the best agents will make these suggestions without prodding. (For related reading, see Fix It And Flip It: The Value of Remodeling.)

Find an Area Expert
Hire or retain an individual who knows a great deal about the area, such as schools, recreational facilities, information about good and bad areas of town etc. These agents will also be more aware of the typical offering and selling prices than those agents who do not typically work in the vicinity.

One way to find an expert in your area is to ask a local brokerage or your friends or relatives if they know anyone who has sold a large number of homes and/or businesses in the area. Another suggestion is to look through the real estate magazines and see which agents have the most listings in certain areas. (To learn more about selling your home, read Five Things Every Real Estate Investor Should Know.)

Find a Connected Agent
Experienced agents can point their clients in the right direction and help them obtain a lawyer, home inspector and other professionals that will help them seal the deal. Agents that aren't connected tend to leave it to their client to seek out and retain such experts.

With this in mind, be sure to ask the agent if he or she works hand and hand with any other professionals to help close the deal. Experienced and savvy agents will probably offer this information on their own. Also note that some agents may even play up their contacts in their advertising literature. The goal is to find an agent with a web of connections as this will make the entire process of buying and/or selling a home dramatically easier.

One Final Tip
Even if you've retained what you think is an ideal agent, think twice before signing an exclusivity agreement. While your agent might be competent, if you are a seller, the more agents you have that can potentially show and sell your home the better the odds are that you will sell that home. Unless some extenuating circumstances exist, retain a listing agent, but insist that the property be placed on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS).

Bottom Line
In order to close a real estate transaction on a timely basis and on favorable terms it is vital to involve an able real estate agent.

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