Updated August 31, 2021
You’ve picked your ideal neighborhood, set your budget, and made the final decision you want to purchase a home. But now comes the hard part: where to begin.
With soaring home prices and inventory shortages, you might be filled with anxiety at the thought of finding your dream house. The good news, however, is you don’t have to do it all alone. Arguably the most important first step in your homebuying journey is choosing your real estate agent. According to a National Association of Realtors report, 88% of buyers recently purchased their home through a real estate agent or broker, and for good reason. Real estate agents will be your guide as you find your perfect home and make it to the closing table. They will walk you through everything you need to know and provide resources you can’t find anywhere else.
But the thing is, finding an agent can be a really big job, so you must choose carefully. To get stellar results, you likely can’t just randomly choose an agent out of the vast real estate sea they swim in. We know this might sound like a lot of pressure, so we’re here to make it a little less daunting. With the help of a few veteran real estate professionals, we created a handy 17-step guide for how to pick a real estate agent, getting you that much closer to homeownership.
Table of Contents
6 steps to get started
1. Think about what’s most important to you
Everyone is different and everyone has their own priorities, especially when it comes to the homebuying process. Decide what qualities are most important to you in an agent and seek them out in your candidates.
Top Florida real estate agent Cindy Kauffman equates a buyer’s relationship with an agent to that of a student and teacher. Just like every student learns differently, every buyer processes their home search in a different way. Get a head start by thinking about what attributes in an agent will best complement your needs.
For example, what communication style are you looking for? Do you prefer to text, talk on the phone, or email? Do you want someone who can immediately get back to you on correspondence, or are you more flexible? Do you need super-personalized attention, or do you prefer for an agent to gauge your lifestyle and preferences and then take the reins accordingly?
2. Rule out the red flags
Just as important as knowing what you do want in an agent is knowing what you don’t want in an agent. Kim Davis, a top real estate agent in Brockton, Massachusetts, who works with 71% more single-family homes than the average agent in her area, says to be wary of aggressiveness in agents.
“I feel that the good agents have patience on their side, so any agent that’s looking to push a property — I think that’s a huge red flag,” she says. “There’s a fine line between educating and advising, and being pushy and demanding. So I would be cautious of an agent who is trying to push, push, push, especially for a specific property or if there was some kind of incentive for that agent.”
Look out for other warning signs, like agents speaking vaguely about their experience or any signs of dishonesty, however subtle.
3. Leverage technology
While old-fashioned methods of picking a real estate agent like referrals and for-sale signs are valuable in your search, the ever-evolving internet offers a wealth of immediate resources. In fact, 97% of buyers, an all-time high, used the internet in their home search in 2020.
There are tools available that can do all the meticulous grunt work for you, like combing through sales records, identifying top agents with proven track records who work with buyers like you. One service with a built-in algorithm that produces customized results for buyers is HomeLight’s very own agent-matching tool.
On top of that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more agents are utilizing technology themselves and offering online services to make your life a little easier. Many agents offer online bookings, virtual tours, electronic paperwork/signings, and even 3D, 360-degree views inside homes. In the next few years, more technology such as drone footage, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality may become more popular as well.
4. Get referrals from friends and family
Trusted referrals from your personal network — be they friends or family — are a powerful tool for finding a real estate agent. When faced with a seemingly endless number of options, having someone point you in the direction of an agent they had a positive, successful experience with is invaluable.
Besides providing great service throughout the homebuying process, pay attention to the agents who went above and beyond and made a lasting impression. After all, according to the NAR, 91% of buyers would use their agent again or recommend them to others.
“I stay in touch with all my past clients for the past 18 years. Whether it be sending them a letter, calling them, checking in with them,” says Davis. Putting in those extra miles can make a big difference.
It also pays to be careful with referrals, though. Your friends and family have different financial circumstances, may want to live in different neighborhoods, and almost certainly have different priorities when it comes to buying a house. An agent who was perfect for your sister or childhood best friend might not be a great fit for you.
Tip: Speaking of friends and family, if any of yours happen to be a real estate agent and offer their services, put them through the same vetting process you would anyone else. No special treatment!
5. Think about what you’re looking for in a home
This might seem like a step better suited to when you actually have a real estate agent, but hear us out. Kauffman says it’s important to go into your agent search with a picture of what you want in a home, including the area, type of house (i.e., single-family vs condo), budget, etc. You don’t have to have all the details nailed down, but at least a general idea will help.
Once you have this knowledge, you can find an agent who is better tailored to your needs and has worked with similar clients. After all, you don’t want to waste your time looking at agents who only work far outside your price range or with homes you don’t want to explore.
6. Do on-the-ground research
When it comes to finding a winning real estate agent, it might be helpful to think like a journalist or a detective. A little creative investigation can go a long way.
One way you can do this is by driving around the area where you’re most interested in buying. Look for “for sale” signs, and then do some research on the listing agents. These are the agents who already know these neighborhoods well. That alone gives them a leg up, and if they otherwise align with your needs, then you’ve got a solid candidate.
5 steps to narrow your list
1. Do background research
At this point in the process, you should have a good short list of agents based on referrals, on-the-ground research, and online exploration that fits your criteria. Now you can do some digging on those particular agents, looking at their online profiles on sites like HomeLight, their Google business page, or Yelp. Kauffman says to look for what the reviews say about an agent’s “people skills,” such as their communication and work style, as that will give you a good idea if they match what you’re looking for.
“Before you even [interview] someone, the reviews are key,” Kauffman says. “You want someone that is kind, patient, truthful, has a strong work ethic. You can tell all of that in the reviews.”
On top of that, dig deeper into each agent’s credentials, first confirming they are licensed in your state by checking your state’s real estate commission. Arello is another useful database to search all the licenses associated with an agent’s name and location.
You can look further into any disciplinary actions on the state real estate commission, board, or department websites, as well. The Better Business Bureau is a reputable backup resource to check for violations or complaints.
These are extra measures to take to make sure you’re working with an honest and ethical agent who won’t try to swindle you and truly has your best interests at heart.
2. Identify relevant certifications and specialties
Just as any good expert in any industry would seek to further their education and stay on top of changes or advancements in their field, many real estate agents pursue additional certifications to strengthen their skillset.
The National Association of Realtors offers several certification programs focused on various real estate specialties, from representing buyers to land consultants, commercial investments, eco-friendly real estate, and more.
There are other niche designations that could really help and make a difference for certain clients in special or irregular circumstances. If you are one of them, finding an agent certified in one of these particular areas could be a huge bonus.
3. Interview agents
Interviewing your potential agent is your first step in establishing a relationship with them, says Davis. So it’s an essential step in finding your perfect match. The most important questions to ask when interviewing real estate agents are primarily about their work history and experience, strategies, and references.
Interviews also offer the opportunity for the buyer to confront any uncertainties or potential concerns based on their initial research. For example, an agent might appear to be the perfect fit … except for a statistic or two that seem off, like buyers spending more money on homes with that agent.
Don’t be afraid to gently ask about those worries. Davis says an issue like that could have an easy or reasonable explanation. But make sure you feel comfortable with their answers as you talk with them.
4. Ask agents for references
If you still need more references, or if you don’t have any by the interview stage, this is the time to ask. Ideally, references provided will be buyers with similar circumstances as yours so you can get a firm grasp on what your agent can offer you, specifically.
5. Consider compatibility
The interview and any other early conversations with your agent are the best time to gauge whether you click with this person who you’ll be spending a substantial amount of time and trusting one of your major life milestones with.
“I think the biggest thing is developing that relationship through the interview. You can tell if you’re going to connect with someone. You can tell if you think it’s going to be difficult to work with them based on their personalities and statistics,” says Davis.
6 steps to select the perfect agent
1. Evaluate skill
At this point in the selection process, you have all the information you need to review to make a final decision. From what you now know, consider the major factors when picking the winner:
- Who best knows the local market?
- Who has the most experience with buyers like you?
- Who has the best reviews?
- Who saves buyers the most money?
“Statistics speak for themselves,” says Davis. Take into account key performance indicators like number of closings per year, the average number of days their properties stay on the market, the average price of homes bought and sold, and so on.
2. Think about conflicts of interest
An important quality to have in a real estate agent is that they are client-service driven, meaning they work to produce the best results for their client in every way. There are a couple of situations that demonstrate a major conflict of interest, which buyers should avoid.
The most obvious one is if they’re working as a dual agent. While this is somewhat unusual, it’s legal in most states for an agent to represent both the buyer and the seller if they choose.
If the agent is coaching both teams, it seems unlikely either would get the attention or advocacy they deserve, leading to sacrificing the best price or property they could get if the agent was solely focused on just one client in the transaction.
Another conflict would be if an agent is trying to steer you in a different direction than you’re comfortable with or outside the parameters you’ve thoughtfully set. Some examples are urging you to look at homes outside of your price range, or advising you away from a co-op because they’re more difficult to close on.
3. Observe how well agents listen
As you continue to narrow down your search, Kauffman says an agent that listens is essential. Both in the interview stage and after you select your agent, you’ll be discussing all your criteria and what you’re looking for in your new home. This information is the basis for landing that home of your dreams, so it’s crucial that your agent pays close attention.
If it’s clear from the beginning the agent isn’t closely listening to your needs, that’s a pretty good sign that you can rule them out.
4. Gauge connections
A mark of an experienced agent is how well-connected they are to their industry and the resources they have in their network.
“Agents know everyone — we know contractors, we know appraisers, we know banks, we know anyone you would need to know as a homeowner. You need a plumber, we know someone,” says Davis. Make sure that if you need a reference or a hookup while purchasing a home, your agent is willing and able to be that liaison.
5. Choose your agent!
Now for the fun (and most important) part! Compile all the work you’ve done, weigh all your intel, and make a final decision. But don’t sweat it too much. If you’ve followed all these steps, chances are you’re going to make a great, well-informed selection.
Most importantly, trust your gut. If you noticed a few red flags you can’t get out of your head, follow up with them. If you truly believe you’ve found the perfect agent, give them a call!
6. Sign a buyer-broker agreement
Homebuyers, especially first-timers, may not be privy to the buyer-broker agreement, but it’s a valuable tool and an extra protective measure for the buyer and the agent.
This document establishes an agreement between the buyer and the broker, or the real estate agent’s supervisor, independent of the agent. It also outlines the agent’s scope and responsibilities to the buyer and gives the buyer the option to switch agents if you choose to. And it includes all the other details of the professional buyer-agent relationship, like the agent’s fees and commission, and a working timeline.
And voila! This step-by-step guide on how to pick a real estate agent should eventually lead you to the home of your dreams. But keep in mind your work isn’t completely done.
Kauffman says a trusted real estate agent should be there alongside you during the entire process and should help take a lot of the stress away. If you feel like you’ve lost that trust or things aren’t working out as planned, don’t be afraid to bring up your concerns. After all, a home purchase is stressful enough without worrying about the team you’re working with. And if all goes to plan, you’ll be ready to move into your dream home in no time at all.
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