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How to find the best real estate agent when you’re ready to buy

Realtor doing a house showing
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Buying a home is no small feat, and it’s one of the biggest financial decisions of your life. When you’re ready to buy, finding a real estate agent with experience to guide you through the process is key.

There’s no shortage of real estate agents vying for the job via online ads, newspaper listings and yard signs. But with so many professionals to choose from, finding the right one can feel overwhelming. Follow these tips on how to find a real estate agent to make sure you hire the perfect pro for your purchase.

How to find an agent: A step-by-step guide

  1. First, get preapproved for a mortgage
  2. Get referrals from friends and family
  3. Research potential candidates
  4. Interview at least three real estate agents
  5. Request references — and check them
  6. Go with your gut
  7. Take a close look at your contract

1. First, get preapproved for a mortgage

Sometimes, home shoppers hire a real estate agent and dive into their home search before they ever talk to a mortgage lender. But it’s smart to talk to a lender first to learn how much you can afford.

Getting preapproved for a mortgage informs you of the maximum amount you can borrow and identifies any issues that need to be worked on early in the process. This helps you stick to homes in the right price range for you. In addition, it will show potential real estate agents (and sellers) that you’re a serious buyer. In competitive markets like today’s, you’ll need a preapproval letter for sellers to even consider your offer.

2. Get referrals from friends and family

Ask people in your network if they can recommend a real estate agent with whom they’ve had a good experience. Ideally, you want someone with experience working with clients who are similar to you. The needs of first-time buyers, for example, are different than those of repeat buyers or homeowners who are looking to downsize.

Look for a real estate agent who is a Realtor — with a capital R. That means they’re a member of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and have formally agreed to abide by the group’s code of ethics. Some Realtors also have certifications to show that they’ve completed training in a certain area of real estate. Some designations include:

  • CRS (Certified Residential Specialist): Completed additional training in handling residential real estate
  • ABR (Accredited Buyer’s Representative): Completed additional training in representing buyers in transactions
  • SRES (Seniors Real Estate Specialist): Completed training aimed at helping buyers and sellers aged 50 and older

Buyer’s agents vs. seller’s agents

Also, familiarize yourself with the difference between a buyer’s agent and a seller’s agent. A buyer’s agent represents a homebuyer in a real estate transaction, while a seller’s or listing agent is responsible for the seller’s side, including pricing and marketing the home and negotiating the terms of the sale.

Sometimes, a single real estate agent can act as the agent for both parties, a practice known as dual agency. Some states don’t allow dual agency, and it can have some inherent risk, so keep this in mind if you’re considering agreeing to this arrangement.

You might also encounter an agent who acts as a referral agent, meaning the agent provides leads to other agents for a fee.

3. Research potential candidates

Start by examining an agent’s online presence. Check the agent’s website and social media accounts. Take a look at their online reviews, as well. Don’t worry about one or two negative reviews, but more than that could be a red flag.

Be sure to check with your state’s real estate regulator to find out whether an agent you’re considering is licensed or has any disciplinary actions. Vet candidates you’re interviewing on your local Better Business Bureau’s website to see if they’ve received any complaints.

While you’re doing your homework to find the right agent, it is also a good time to create a wish list and must-haves of what you’re seeking in a home.

4. Interview at least three real estate agents

An interview is your opportunity to get a sense of the agent’s style and experience. Ultimately, you’re looking for someone who is familiar with a particular area and understands your budget and needs.

“See how polished and professional their proposal is,” says Katherine Hutt, president and founder of Nautilus Communications and former chief communications officer with the Better Business Bureau. “The more effort they put into a presentation for you, the more effort they’ll put into presentations when they’re working for you. You want someone who is really savvy.”

Questions to ask include how long they’ve been a real estate agent, how many clients they currently have and how long they typically work with buyers to close on a home. It’s also a good idea to ask the typical price range and neighborhoods of homes they usually help their buyers find, how they help buyers stay competitive in this market and what their commission fees are.

Interviews also give you a chance to find out the agent’s preferred method of communication and their availability. For example, if you’re most comfortable texting and expect to visit homes after work hours during the week, you’ll want an agent who’s happy to do the same.

5. Request references — and check them

Ask agents you’re considering to provide information on homes they’ve listed and sold in the past year, with contact information for at least a few recent clients. Call those clients to find out their experiences and what type of support the agent provided throughout the process, including during the negotiations. Ask whether they’d hire that agent again for their next real estate transaction.

6. Go with your gut

Just as important as the knowledge and experience an agent brings is their ability to guide you smoothly through the process. Above all, go with an agent you trust and will feel comfortable with if the road to closing gets a little bumpy.

“It’s just like dating — sometimes it just comes down to chemistry,” says Herman Chan, an associate broker and Realtor with Golden Gate Sotheby’s International Realty in Berkeley, California. “If everything checks out, but you just don’t vibe with that person, don’t go with them. There are plenty of other real estate agents out there that will be happy to help you and might be a better personality fit.”

7. Take a close look at your contract

Once you select an agent, your contract should spell out all of the terms to which you’ve agreed, including the real estate commission. Traditionally, the seller pays 6 percent of the sales price of the home for real estate commissions, with half going to their own agent and half going to the buyer’s agent. The commission rate is often negotiable, however, with the average commission actually just under 6 percent, according to an analysis by EffectiveAgents.

Another factor to look at: The length of the contract itself. Aim for a contract limited to six months or less. In a competitive seller’s market like today’s, it can take just 20 days — or less — to sell a home, according to the NAR. If you haven’t found the home you want within a few months, it’s helpful to keep your options open.

Why the right real estate agent matters

In today’s hyper-competitive housing market, the right real estate agent really makes a difference. You want someone you trust and feel comfortable with, who can navigate through the process with your best interests in mind. The more experienced a buyer’s agent is with a certain area, the more likely it is that they can guide you toward the right property for the right price, and within your timeline and budget.

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Written by
Beth Braverman
Personal Finance Expert Contributor
Beth Braverman is an award-winning freelance journalist and content producer, writing mostly about personal finance, parenting and careers.
Edited by
Senior real estate editor