Another good question for sellers is: How long has the home been on the market?
2. Look up the licensing
States will have boards that license and discipline real estate agents in those states, says Phipps. Check with your state's regulatory body to find out if the person is licensed and if there have been any disciplinary actions or complaints, or check to see if the information is 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
Just as doctors specialize, so do real estate agents. And even generalists will get additional training in some areas. So that alphabet soup after the name can be an indication that the person has taken additional classes in a certain specialty 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 a transaction.
- SRES (Seniors Real Estate Specialist): Completed training aimed at helping buyers and sellers in the 50-plus age range.
If the agent calls himself a Realtor with a capital "R," that means he'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
You can often find out how long the agent has been selling real estate from the state licensing authority. Or, you can just ask the agent.
"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 When Buying a Home."
Ultimately, what you're looking for is someone who is actively engaged in a particular area and price range, says Phipps. You'll want to know what knowledge of those two factors they can demonstrate and "what kind of market presence they have," he says.
6. Look at their current listings
Check out an agent's listings online, says Brobeck. Two places to look are the agency's own site and Realtor.com, a website that compiles properties in the Multiple Listing Service into a searchable online database.
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," says Brobeck.
You also can 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."