Online tools to pick an agent
Some homebuyers and home sellers find and size up their real estate agent online. With 90 percent of Realtors reporting that they use social media in their businesses, online tools are destined to become the norm for selecting agents.
"All of my clients, especially the younger ones, are very plugged in," says Herman Chan, a second-generation real estate professional in San Francisco. "That's just how the business works today. It's not like when my mom was an agent, and all you really had was advertising and word of mouth."
Most clients still find Chan through referrals. But what's different from the days when his mom sold homes is that prospective clients have already researched him online.
Google can go a long way
At a minimum, most real estate agents expect prospective clients to search Google for them.
"Doing an Internet search on the agent's name is just a good idea because it pulls together all the relevant information," Chan says. "Google is just where everyone starts, even if the agent was referred by a friend."
Usually, you can find an agent's social media profiles and possibly performance reviews. If the agent maintains a blog, that should come up, too. If you have trouble finding anything, it might be smart to move on to the next name on your list.
"If they don't have a strong online presence, they're dinosaurs," Chan says.
Looking at LinkedIn
LinkedIn is "one of the most under-utilized tools available for assessing an agent," says Melinda Enfinger, a former real estate agent who helps current agents market online via her company, Define Your Diva.
"As a business-networking platform, LinkedIn differs from other social networks because you can see more of a resume-style view of their background, experience and specialties," Enfinger says. "You can also see reviews from past clients and see if they are actively participating in groups by answering questions and delivering value."
Perusing other social media sites
Using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to find and size up an agent is different from using a professional site such as LinkedIn, Chan says.
For one thing, not all agents use those sites for business. And as Chan points out, even though he posts real estate-related items on Facebook and Twitter, "Not every post is about business because nobody wants to read that all the time."
So what are those sites good for?
"Facebook and Twitter give you a sense of someone's personality," Chan says. "I don't think my clients pick me because of what they see on Facebook or Twitter, but I do think they use those sites to figure out if I'm someone they want to spend a lot of time with."
Read reviews skeptically
If you look into an agent's reviews on sites such as Yelp, there are few things to consider. Sites that offer free reviews can be gamed, says Anton Stetner, founder of Real Estate Solutions Group in Marysville, Wash. "It could be anyone posting, even a competitor."
For some agents, free review sites can also be suspect because they make their money by selling ads to the businesses on the site.
"The truth is, we get contacted by these websites all the time trying to sell us the top position," says Isabel Fontaneau, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Miami.
See agents' work in action
If you're looking only at the homes on listing sites, you're missing out, according to Liz and William Spear, a wife-and-husband real estate team in Mason, Ohio.
"The ability to actually see the agent's online work in representing their sellers is key," the Spears say via email. "Do they post bad photos of their listings? Next! (Do they) write poor marketing copy or have spelling and grammar errors? Basically, reviewing their work is like an online interview."
Sites such as Realtor.com let you search by an agent's name, so you can see the agent in action. If a site doesn't let you search by agent, you can scan listings in your area, and then start contacting the agents who posted listings that are of a good quality.
Are referrals the best way?
There's still a school of thought that says you shouldn't select a professional based on information from the Internet.
"A personal referral is the only way to go," says Janice B. Leis, an associate broker with Prudential Fox & Roach in Philadelphia. "Would you choose a financial adviser online or an attorney online?"
On the other hand, there's no rule that says you may use only online tools to find and size up a real estate agent.
"Online tools are a great way of learning more about who they are, but nothing can replace real conversation," says Enfinger. "So whether you are Facebook friends, a Twitter follower, a LinkedIn connection or something else altogether, take the time to pick up the phone, and get to know your agent before you jump in."