By Amy Fontinelle

If you want to buy a home, you'll need to get an agent. The most basic reason to get an agent is that you won't be able to see homes without one. (To learn more, readDo You Need A Real Estate Agent?)

Only agents have access to lock box codes to let you into vacant homes. You could get in by calling the listing agent, whose number will be on the "for sale" sign, but this isn't in your best interest. That's because the seller's agent, as the name implies, works for the seller. His or her job is to get the highest price for the seller. This is in direct conflict with your goal, which is to get the property for the lowest possible price. An agent can legally act as both the seller's agent and the buyer's agent, but this obviously creates a conflict of interest.

Agent or Realtor?
When choosing someone to represent you, you have several choices. First, you can choose a regular real estate agent or you can choose a Realtor. Most people don't realize that these two terms do not mean the same thing. Here's a little flashback to high school geometry: all Realtors are real estate agents, but all real estate agents are not Realtors. A Realtor is a member of the National Association of Realtors, which has a strict code of ethics defining the agent's duties to clients and customers, the public and other Realtors. If you don't have any agent recommendations from friends or relatives, you may want to look for a Realtor because you may be more likely to find a higher-quality agent this way.

You'll also need to consider whether you want to try to find an agent who offers a commission rebate. Typically, the buyer's agent and the seller's agent split the commission from the sale, which is usually 5% or 6% and paid entirely by the seller. That means that your agent (the buyer's agent), will get 2.5-3%. Your agent may then elect to give some of that money to you as an incentive for you to work with him or her. For buyers with limited cash reserves, this can help offset the sting of the down payment, closing costs and other expenses associated with purchasing a home and moving.

Keep in mind, however, that the availability of a commission rebate, while very attractive, should not be your main criteria in choosing an agent. In a transaction of this much value, the amount of money a good agent can save you by doing his or her job well could easily exceed the commission rebate offered by another agent. In an ideal world, you would find an agent who offers both, but this may not be possible.

Regardless of what type of professional you choose to represent you, there are certain qualities you should look for and questions you should ask when choosing one:
  • What experience do you have in the areas where I'm looking?
  • How many years of experience do you have as a real estate agent?
  • Are you an agent full-time or part-time?
  • What days and times are you available to show me homes and answer my questions?
  • What kind of contract do you ask your buyers to sign?
  • Who pays your fee?
You should work with an agent who is very familiar with your area. Ideally, your agent both lives in the area, so he or she can direct you to the best neighborhoods and advise you about quality of life issues, and works in the area, so he or she is familiar with trends in home values and sales. In theory, an agent who works full time and who has plenty of experience will do a better job for you, but a new agent who is eager to prove him- or herself and who has a good mentor in the field may do just as good of a job as a more seasoned professional.

An agent should be available at the days and times you want him or her to be available. If you work 9am to 5pm, you'll need someone who can work with you in the evening and on weekends. Many agents will ask you to sign an exclusive contract with them for a period ranging from 30 to 90 days, because after going to the trouble of showing you houses and answering your questions, it wouldn't be fair to them if you suddenly switched agents on a whim and someone else got the commission. To protect yourself, sign the shortest contract possible, if you sign one at all, in case you aren't satisfied with the agent's performance.

Also, in the majority of cases, you should not have to pay the agent a fee - the seller will pay it. Last but not least, work with someone you find pleasant to be around, but don't work with a wimp. Choose someone who you think will be a tough negotiator on your behalf. A "nice" agent may not get you the best deal. (For more on how to find the help you need. check out Finding A Listing Agent.)

Finally, we've arrived at the fun part - it's time to find a home!


Next: Buying A Home: Find A Home »



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