How to Pick A Real Estate Agent: The Key to Your New Home

Parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, real estate agent and prospective homebuyer: these are some of the most important relationships in life. Some might question if that last one was in jest, but it couldn’t be more true.

According to a National Association of Realtors report, 89% of buyers recently purchased their home through a real estate agent or broker. So if you’ve arrived at that pivotal point of hiring an agent, that means you’re serious about buying a home and closer to clinching the deal.

If you’ve reached this juncture, you’ve saved up enough money for a down payment, and your lender has preapproved you for a loan, so you know what kind of mortgage you can afford. Now you just have to find that right person to guide you to the finish line.

The thing is, that’s a really big job, so you must choose very carefully. You can’t just blindly pick an agent out of the vast real estate sea they swim in. That sounds like a lot of pressure. Where do you even start and how can you be sure you pick the right one? While it’s a daunting task, it’s certainly an achievable one.

If you know what you desire and require out of an agent, then you can begin your search for the one that matches all your criteria. Determine what that entails for you with this handy 17-step guide for picking your real estate agent, getting you that much closer to homeownership.

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Real estate agent checklist for buyers

1. Think about what’s most important to you

Everyone is different and everyone has different needs, 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.

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. 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 even after their clients closed and moved on.

“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.

Tip: Speaking of friends and family, if any of yours happen to be a real estate agent and offers their services, put them through the same vetting process you would anyone else. No special treatment!

4. Get referrals from similar homeowners

In addition to asking for referrals from the people you know best, it can be equally helpful to get referrals from people who live in your area and share similar preferences, lifestyles, backgrounds, and other dynamics with you. Whether you’re a veteran, have a family, need outdoor space for pets, or whatever the case may be, find out where people like you go for their real estate agent needs.

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5. 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 that 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.

6. 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.

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.

7. Do background research

At this point in the process, you should have a good shortlist of agents based on referrals, on-the-ground, and online research 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, Yelp, and Angie’s List.

Other than looking at review sites, 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 good 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.

8. 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 many 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.

9. Interview agents

“Interviewing the agent is hugely important because you establish a relationship with your agent,” says Davis. 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 seems off, like buyers spending more money on homes with that agent.

Davis says an issue like this could have an easy or reasonable explanation. Maybe the agent specializes in high-end or luxury homes, so their buyers tend to look at higher-priced real estate to begin with.

Someone using a laptop to pick a real estate agent.
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10. 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.

11. Consider compatibility

The interview and any other early conversations with your agent is 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.

12. 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.

13. 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 pushing 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.

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14. Observe how well agents listen

In the pre-hiring interview stage and immediately following selecting 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 listens and 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.

15. 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.

16. Choose your agent!

Now for the fun (and most important) part!

Compile all the legwork you’ve done, weigh all your intel, and make a final decision.

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. Plus, it’s reassuring that according to a recent National Association of Realtors report surveying buyers, “90% of buyers would use their agent again or recommend their agent to others.”

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17. 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, working timeline, and so on.

And voila! This step-by-step guide to finding a real estate agent will eventually lead you to the home of your dreams.

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