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7 tips for picking a great real estate agent

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Family being shown house by realtor © Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

When you're shopping for a real estate agent, you obviously want the best. But with agents presenting themselves through yard signs, online ads, direct-mail postcards and even sponsored public benches, how do you cut through the hype?

With real estate agents, "we don't have the information that we have about other service professionals," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, in Washington, D.C. Still, there are methods for sizing up an agent's record -- and potential.

Whether you're a buyer or seller, here are 7 ways you can find out more about an agent before you hire.

Learn more about your agent before hiring

  1. Talk with recent clients.
  2. Look up the licensing.
  3. Pick a winner.
  4. Select an agent with the right credentials.
  5. Research how long the agent has been in business.
  6. Look at their current listings.
  7. Ask about other houses for sale nearby.

1. Talk with recent clients

Ask agents to provide a list of what they've listed and sold in the past year, with contact information, says Ron Phipps, past president of the National Association of Realtors, or NAR. Before you start reaching out to people the agent has worked with, ask if anyone will be "particularly pleased or particularly disappointed," he says.

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 if the previous properties were similar to yours in price, location and other salient features, Poorvu says. What you want is someone who specializes in exactly what you're selling.

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


2. Look up the licensing

States will have boards that license and discipline real estate agents, says Phipps. Check with your state's regulatory body to find out if a prospective agent is licensed and if there have been any disciplinary actions or complaints. The information may be posted online.


3. Pick a winner

Peer-given awards count, says Phipps. One that really means something is the "Realtor of the Year" designation awarded by the state or local branch of NAR.

"These agents are the best as judged by their peers," he says. "That's a huge endorsement."


4. Select an agent with the right credentials

Doctors have specialties, and so do real estate agents. Even generalists will get additional training in some areas. So, the alphabet soup after an agent's name can be an indication that the person has taken additional classes in a certain category of real estate sales. Here's what some of the designations mean:

  • 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 NAR. By hiring a Realtor, "the most important thing you get is an agent who formally pledges to support the code of ethics," says Phipps.


5. Research how long the agent has been in business

A state licensing authority will often be able to tell you how long an agent has been selling real estate. Or, you can just ask the agent directly.

"If they haven't been in business 5 years, they're learning on you and that's not good," says Robert Irwin, author of "Tips & Traps When Buying a Home."

Ultimately, what you're looking for is someone who is actively engaged in a particular area and price range, says NAR's Phipps. You'll want an agent to demonstrate knowledge of the area and homes in your range and show "what kind of market presence they have," he says.


6. Look at current listings

Check out an agent's listings online, says Brobeck, of the Consumer Federation. Places to look include the agency's own 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 on the internet, 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? And does the agent have enough listings to indicate a healthy business but not so many that you'd just be a number?


7. Ask about other houses for sale nearby

A good agent should know about other area properties that are available "off the top of his head," says Irwin. Mention a house in your area that's sold recently 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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