7 tips for picking a great real estate agent

Real estate agents promote themselves with yard signs, online ads, direct-mail postcards and even sponsored public benches. So, cutting through the advertising hype and finding the right agent can be tough.

“We don’t have the information (about real estate agents) that we have about other service professionals,” says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Still, there are ways to size up an agent’s record — and potential. Check out these seven ways to find a great real estate agent, whether you’re buying or selling a home.

  1. Talk with agents’ recent clients.
  2. Check for license and disciplinary actions.
  3. Ask about professional awards.
  4. Select an agent with the right credentials.
  5. Find out how experienced an agent is.
  6. Look at the agent’s current listings.
  7. Gauge the agent’s knowledge of the area.

1. Talk with agents’ recent clients

Ask agents to provide a list of what they’ve listed and sold in the past year, with contact information.

With past clients, “I’d like to know what the asking price was and then what the sales price was,” says William Poorvu, adjunct professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and co-author of “The Real Estate Game: The Intelligent Guide to Decision-Making and Investment.”

If you’re selling, ask whether the previous properties were similar to yours in price, location and other key features, Poorvu says. You want someone who specializes in what you’re selling.

Another good question for sellers to ask: How long were the homes on the market?

2. Check for license and disciplinary actions

The states license and discipline real estate agents. Check with your state’s regulatory body to find out whether an agent you’re considering is licensed and or has any disciplinary actions or complaints. That information may be posted online.

3. Ask about professional awards

Peer-given awards count, says Ron Phipps, a past president of the National Association of Realtors. One that really means something is “Realtor of the Year,” which is awarded by the state or local branch of the NAR.

“These agents are the best as judged by their peers,” Phipps says. “That’s a huge endorsement.”

4. Select an agent with the right credentials

Doctors have specialties, and so do real estate agents, many of whom get additional training in particular areas. The alphabet soup after an agent’s name can indicate that the agent has taken classes in a certain area of real estate sales. Some of the designations include:

  • CRS (Certified Residential Specialist): Completed additional training in handling residential real estate.
  • ABR (Accredited Buyer’s Representative): Completed additional education in representing buyers in transactions.
  • SRES (Seniors Real Estate Specialist): Completed training aimed at helping buyers and sellers in the 50-plus age range.

If the agent calls herself a Realtor with a capital R, that means she’s a member of the NAR.

“The most important thing you get (by hiring a Realtor) is an agent who formally pledges to support the code of ethics,” Phipps says.

5. Find out how experienced an agent is

A state licensing authority often can tell you how long an agent has been in business. Or, you can ask the agent directly.

“If they haven’t been in business five years, they’re learning on you and that’s not good,” says Robert Irwin, author of “Tips & Traps for Negotiating Real Estate.”

Ultimately, what you want is someone who is actively engaged in a particular area and price range. You’ll want an agent to demonstrate knowledge of the area and homes in your price range.

6. Look at the agent’s current listings

Check out an agent’s listings online, says Brobeck of the Consumer Federation of America. Places to look include the real estate agency’s website and sites such as Realtor.com, which offer a searchable online database of properties in the multiple listing service.

Most buyers start their search online, and you want an agent who uses that tool effectively. “A key thing is an attractive presentation on the web,” Brobeck says.

Look at how closely the agent’s listings mirror the property you want to buy or sell. Are they in the same area? Is the price range similar? Does the agent have enough listings to indicate a healthy business, but not so many that you’d be waiting days for him or her to return your call?

7. Gauge the agent’s knowledge of the area

A good agent should know about other properties that are available in the area, Irwin says. Mention a house in your area that recently sold or is for sale.

If the agent knows the property and can give you a few details, that means he or she really knows your area, he says. “You want someone like that, who’s on top of the market.”

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