Shopping for personal service pros, whether they’re doctors, accountants, or personal trainers, can be tough. The whole to-do is especially tough if you’re looking for a real estate agent, because you’re trying to pick out someone who can help with one of the biggest financial decisions of your life. If you’re looking for an agent, I’d encourage you to get referrals from family and friends, and to interview more than one person. Trust your gut as you do these interviews; if you think someone is unlikeable or too flashy, that’s the way other people they meet will probably react to them too. When you talk to prospective agents, consider the following criteria:
While every agent has to start somewhere — and a rookie real estate agent can make the case that they’re going to outwork an old pro — you want to know what you’re getting. This is a concern now more than ever as many people have become real estate agents because they’re casualties of the recession. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, has noted that 6% of the members of the National Association of Realtors have been members for less than one year.
All commissions are negotiable, and it’s okay to ask an agent what his or her commission is. Often it varies for different jobs; personally, if I think a seller’s apartment is attractively priced and I can sell it quickly, I can charge a lower commission to sell it than if I think it’s overpriced and it’s going to take me awhile to make a deal happen.
Trade Association Memberships
More than one million agents are members of the National Association of Realtors, which publishes a code of ethics for the profession. Others are members of local real estate boards which encourage the sharing of certain types of expertise. Ask your prospective agent what groups she’s a member of, and why.
All real estate agents like to believe that we can do everything, especially in a slow market. However, most agents have one or two specialties, whether locations, types of properties, or types of customers. An agent might work primarily in Downtown Manhattan rather than on the East Side; another agent might focus on old Colonial houses rather than new condos; meanwhile, a third agent might specialize in housing medical residents and doctors who work at a local hospital. Ask the agents you interview what their specialties are, and how those specific focuses can work for you.
Some agents work as discounters, and they sell the idea that they help with the first or last part of the process, but that you do some work too, and save some money. Other agents are extremely full service, and will counsel you not just on buying and selling, but also on financing and renovations. It’s a good idea to match the level of service that you’re buying to the level that you need – for example, if you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, you might be disappointed with the service of a discount agent.
In the end, the most important thing is to know yourself, what you’re looking for, and to ask the right questions to get you there.