Choosing a real estate agent

Melissa Sprouse Browne, Real Estate School of South Carolina
Melissa Sprouse Browne, Real Estate School of South Carolina

By Melissa Sprouse Browne, Real Estate School of South Carolina

Thousands of real estate agents vie for your attention. They're everywhere - online, television, newspapers, billboards, bus benches, even at the grocery store in the stacks of homes magazines by the front door. With so many choices, how do you know which person is right for you? After all, the purchase and/or sale of a home is generally the largest transaction you will ever have, so it is critically important to choose the right person to represent you.

First, you need to learn a little about the terms used in the real estate business. A REALTOR® is someone who is a member of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR). A real estate agent is someone who is licensed by the state licensing authority (in South Carolina, it's the South Carolina Real Estate Commission) to practice real estate. Many people use the terms "realtor" and "real estate agent" interchangeably. The term "realtor" should only be used when referring to someone who is a current member of the National Association of Realtors®. (You can expect to see the term on the person's business cards or other marketing material if he/she belongs to the organization.)

There is no difference legally between a "realtor" and a "real estate agent." Licensees who have joined the NAR are required to adhere to a standard Code of Ethics. Non-member agents are not required to follow the same Code of Ethics, but that's not to say they are unethical. They simply have chosen not to join the group.

The agent you choose to represent you in the purchase of a home might be different than the person you select to list your current home for sale. Many agents have specialties and it is wise to investigate the areas of expertise your potential agents have.

As a home purchaser, you will want an agent to represent you, the buyer. Many agents focus exclusively on working with buyers, so you should have no trouble finding someone that suits your needs. There are also agents who work both sides of the transaction (buying and selling), so it is not wrong to choose someone to represent you as a buyer who also represents sellers. Should you choose the latter option, be aware of the possibility that your agent could potentially represent you AND the seller, if you happen to purchase a home he/she has listed for sale. In that case, a dual agency would exist, meaning that the agent is bound to serve the best interests of both parties and cannot work exclusively for YOUR best interest.

If you go with a buyer's agent who only represents your interests in the transaction, that situation is also fine. In this case, people often wonder how the buyer's agent is paid. Usually, the buyer does not pay the commission to the buyer's agent. (However, he could pay the agent if the commission is not paid by the selling side.) When a home is sold, a commission is paid to both the selling agent (representing the buyer) and the listing agent (representing the seller). The commission is usually a percentage of the sales price, such as 6%. Note that commissions are negotiable and cannot be set as standard fees, which would violate antitrust laws.

As the home seller, you will most likely list your home for sale with an agent. Again, the possibility exists that your agent could also represent the purchaser, if that agent works with both buyers and sellers.

Now that the conditions of the transaction are clear, how do you choose the right agent?

First, look for an agent who claims to work with your particular situation, such as luxury homes, or first time buyers, or perhaps lakefront property. Once you have a group of agent names, you'll want to interview at least three agents before making your final decision.

At the interview, each agent will make his or her presentation as to why you should choose that agent. You can expect to hear about her experience, her marketing plan for your property or her approach to finding the property you seek, information on her company, websites that will be utilized, advice on making/accepting offers and perhaps a portfolio of properties previously/currently listed with this agent.

Carefully evaluate the information. Does the agent have a professional marketing approach, with consistency of image? Does the presentation stand out as truly professional, or does it look like a template that everyone else is using? Did the agent use enough attention to detail - was the information about your home correct, did you notice any misspelled words or grammar errors, were the photos high quality? If not, then remember that this will be the same person preparing the sales materials on YOUR house. If the agent's own materials are poor quality, then you may reasonably expect that the materials created for your property will be commensurate.

Did you feel a rapport with the agent? Having a good relationship with open communication is key to the successful completion of the transaction. Even if you have found an agent with many years of experience with the type of property you have/desire, if you are not comfortable having a conversation with him, then it is not the right decision to hire this person.

Does the agent have time to properly service your needs? Many successful agents are able to manage several clients at once through the use of assistants. If your agent candidate takes a team approach, find out which person will be responsible for each portion of the process.

A helpful hint in hiring an agent is to ask your friends and neighbors about their personal experiences with real estate agents. A glowing recommendation from a trusted friend can go a long way in making the right choice.

Once the research is concluded and you have interviewed the candidates, trust your instincts. If someone looks great on paper, but you didn't have a good feeling face to face, then choose another agent.

There are literally thousands of good agents who are ready and able to meet your needs. And, once you have found the right one for you, you'll be well on your way to having the home of your dreams!