At HomeLight, our vision is a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Therefore, we promote strict editorial integrity in each of our posts.
Today’s housing market looks very different from what we’ve experienced in the past few years. Higher interest rates and some sellers’ inability to adjust to a different demand have complicated market conditions. With this new landscape in mind, arguably the most important first step in your homebuying journey is knowing how to pick a real estate agent.
According to a National Association of Realtors report, 86% of buyers said their agent was a useful source of information when navigating the homebuying process. When you choose well, your real estate agent 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.
Over the last few years, agents were necessary to submit quick offers and help buyers win bidding wars. As the market has changed, sellers are lagging behind the trends and expecting to get a premium price without doing much to their home. The days of shrewd negotiating are back. You need a buyer’s agent with the skills and experience to negotiate repairs and updates as well as price.
Choosing an agent who can fit the bill can be daunting, so with the help of a few veteran real estate professionals and some extensive research on our part, we created a handy 17-step guide for picking your agent, getting you that much closer to homeownership.
What does a buyer’s agent do?
A buyer’s agent acts as an advocate for the buyer throughout the homebuying process. Their duties include (but aren’t limited to):
- Understanding what you’re looking for in a home
- Matching your objectives with how much you can spend
- Leveraging their experience and connections to identify appropriate properties
- Scheduling home showings
- Walking through homes with you and gauging your interest
- Lending emotional support during the process
- Writing an offer and handling negotiations
- Overseeing the next steps once an offer is accepted — helping with financing approval, keeping track of timelines, explaining the inspection report
- Attending the closing and ensuring it goes smoothly
Steps 1-5: Put together a list of potential agents
1. Think about the communication style you prefer
The first step to choosing an agent is to decide what communication style works best for you. This includes how the agent actually contacts you as well as how they speak and relate to you.
Warren Barnes, a Fort Wayne, Indiana agent who works with over 76% more single-family homes than other agents in his area, says that buyer/agent compatibility is important, but not necessarily the primary goal. Above all, Barnes says, “you want to have someone who is ultimately looking out for your best interests. And then secondarily, I think it’s good to work with someone that you can have fun with and build a relationship with along the way.”
Some questions to ask yourself include:
- 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?
- Do you prefer a direct, no-nonsense approach, or do you need things a little sugar-coated?
2. 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, 96% of buyers used online tools to facilitate their home search last year.
Barnes says that when it’s time to search for an agent, Google and agent review sites provide reliable and relevant information.
You can (and should) also check out their social media accounts to see the types of homes they’re helping buyers to find. Their tone on social media can also be an indicator of whether or not you think you’ll get along. Are they fun and playful? Serious and sophisticated? Wry and sarcastic?
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, and reading reviews. One service with a built-in algorithm that produces customized results for buyers is HomeLight’s free agent-matching tool.
Many agents are utilizing technology themselves and offering online services to make your life a little easier, offering 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 will become more popular as well. If having an agent that leverages technology is important to you, make sure you’re asking about how they’ll use technology to work for you.
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 and made a lasting impression. According to the NAR, 89% of buyers would use their agent again or recommend them to others, so if you’ve had friends or family who recently worked with an agent, chances are they’ll give you a recommendation which is a great place to start.
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 may 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 as you would anyone else. No special treatment!
4. Think about what you’re looking for in a home
Different agents specialize in different types of properties, so Barnes says, a piece of due diligence for a buyer or seller would be to “ensure that the agent you’re looking to work with has performed transactions similar to the type of property that you’re looking to buy or sell.”
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.
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 yard signs in the location that you’re looking to buy. If there are a lot of yard signs for a particular brokerage or a particular agent, that can be a good sign that they might be the best person to work with,” points out Barnes.
These are the agents who already know these neighborhoods well. That alone gives them a leg up, and if they also align with your needs, then you’ve got a more solid candidate.
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. 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.
- Kim Davis Real Estate AgentCloseKim Davis Real Estate Agent at Keller Williams Realty Easton Currently accepting new clients
- Years of Experience 22
- Transactions 572
- Average Price Point $335k
- Single Family Homes 474
Steps 6-11: The vetting process
6. Do background research
At this point in the process, you should have a good shortlist 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.
Cynthia Kauffman, a top agent in Ocala, Florida, 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, but it doesn’t include all states.
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 extra measures can help you make sure you’re working with an honest and ethical agent who truly has your best interests at heart.
7. 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.
Some agents specialize in military relocation, historic homes, and seniors. These expanded skills can make a difference for 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.
See related story: What Is a Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES) Agent?
8. Interview agents
Interviewing your potential agent is your first step in establishing a relationship with them, says 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. So it’s an essential step in finding your perfect match. Barnes recommends scheduling interviews with two or three agents that made your shortlist.
The most important questions to ask when interviewing real estate agents are primarily about their work history and experience, strategies, and references.
This is also a chance to make sure their communication style fits your needs. If you feel uncomfortable or get a bad vibe, it might not be the right fit for you. Homebuying can be an emotional and complicated process, so make sure the agents are able to answer your questions in a way you understand.
Barnes says it often comes down to a gut feeling, “which isn’t qualifiable, but if [you] feel like [you’re] getting along, they’re competent, and can answer any questions you may have,” you’re heading in the right direction.
Other things to look out for, according to Barnes: Can the agent proactively answer questions, and do they have a process for helping the client?
See related story: How to Interview a Realtor in a Brief 15-Minute Phone Call
9. 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. Davis warns 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. When you find the right agent, you’ll typically get a good gut feeling. The same can be true if the agent isn’t right for you. If your gut says “no,” it’s ok to walk away.
Certain red flags don’t necessarily mean the agent is a bad agent. They may just not be a good fit for you. But keep in mind that agents who are also Realtors®, meaning they are members of the National Association of Realtors, are bound by a strict Code of Ethics that binds them to higher standards of professionalism and integrity. If you sense they are acting unethically, being dishonest, intentionally vague, or don’t have your best interests at heart, it’s time to move on to the next agent candidate.
See related story: 12 Clear Signs of a Bad Real Estate Agent
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 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.
Steps 12-17: Select the perfect agent to help you navigate a challenging market
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 the 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 that 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.
See related story: Can a Realtor Represent Both the Seller and Buyer?
14. Make sure the agent is solution oriented
The buying process isn’t always as easy as finding the perfect home, securing financing, and signing the papers. There are a lot of moving parts and roadblocks along the way, so working with a solution-oriented agent can give you a leg up as you vie for the perfect house.
A good example of this is even though the market is slowing down a bit, affordability is still a real issue for many would-be buyers. Barnes says some buyers are struggling to secure financing for certain loans given the condition of the home, but he’s able to offer a product that can work around some of the roadblocks.
Other ways agents can help with affordability, he says, is coming up with other possible solutions such as buying down the interest rate, negotiating seller concessions, and encouraging saving more for the down payment.
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 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!
17. Sign a buyer-broker agreement
Homebuyers, especially first-timers, may not be aware of 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.
Barnes says that buyer-broker agreements aren’t very common in his area, but they do have their advantages. Some upsides he notes are a higher level of commitment from the buyer’s agent. There are no surprises when it comes to any commission issues because the commission is stated in the agreement.
For the buyers, Barnes says that “once you’re committed to an agent, you don’t need to be shopping around or getting bogged down by other distractions. So it can be a more streamlined process for a buyer in that respect.”
See related story: What’s a Buyer Broker Agreement? (Know Before You Sign)
Buying a house can be stressful. Choose an agent who can help
And voila! This step-by-step guide to finding 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.
Writer Madeline Sheen contributed to this story.
Header Image Source: (Pixabay / Pexels)
FAQs about real estate agents when buying a home
A real estate agent brings expertise, market knowledge, and negotiation skills to help you navigate the home buying process. They can guide you, provide insights on properties, handle paperwork, and represent your interests throughout the transaction.
It’s easier than ever to find a suitable buyer’s agent today using HomeLight. HomeLight recommended real estate agents are top-tier negotiators who understand the market data that helps you save as much as possible when buying your dream home. It takes just two minutes to match you with the best real estate agents, who will contact you and guide you through the process.
Look for qualities such as experience, knowledge of the local market, strong communication skills, and responsiveness. A good agent should listen to your preferences, provide guidance, and have excellent negotiation skills. Trustworthiness, integrity, and a good rapport are also important factors to consider.
It’s generally recommended to have your own buyer’s agent instead of working with the listing agent. A buyer’s agent solely represents your interests, providing unbiased advice and negotiation on your behalf. This ensures you have someone dedicated to protecting your needs throughout the home buying process.
Real estate agents typically get compensated through commissions. As a buyer, you don’t directly pay your agent; instead, the seller pays the commission as part of the transaction. It’s important to clarify the commission structure and any potential fees with your agent before working together to avoid any misunderstandings.
- How Rising Interest Rates Affect First-Time Homebuyers
- "How rising interest rates affect your day to day," NPR (November 2022)
- "2022 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers," National Association of Realtors®, Jessica Lautz et al. (November 2022)
- HomeLight Top Agent Insights Summer 2023
- "2021 Technology Survey," National Association of Realtors (August 2021)