If you've been following our weekly, step-by-step 2016 Home-Buying Guide, you know that purchasing a new home takes some serious prep work -- from cleaning up your credit score to amassing a down payment.
But, hey, we're just getting started! You also need a comrade in arms: a close ally to help steer you toward homes you'll love more than life itself, find the best possible mortgage, and all in all help you through this emotionally and financially taxing process. That's where a good real estate agent can make a world of difference.
Here's how to find one who's got your back. And your front. Every side, actually.
Know what different titles mean
The first thing you might notice while trying to find home-buying help is all the different titles: agent, broker, Realtor, etc. Are they all the same thing? Not exactly.
A real estate agent is anyone who's earned a license to sell property, which typically entails taking 100+ hours of course work and then passing a state exam. A broker is someone who's continued his studies and can hire agents to work under him. A Realtor is either an agent or broker who is a member of the National Association of Realtors. Realtors adhere to a detailed code of ethics to treat their clients honestly and fairly. Consider it added insurance that they're committed to your cause.
Conduct a preliminary search online
We shop online for everything these days, and finding a real estate agent is no different. To locate ones in your area, use online tools such as realtor.com's Find a Realtor search, which will give you useful info such as the Realtor's number of years of job experience, number of homes sold, and the price of homes typically dealt with. Take note of a Realtor's track record, because this can tip you off to superstar agents nearby and whether they're a fit for your needs.
Don't settle for 'good enough'
According to the NAR, 52% of first-time buyers found their Realtor through a friend -- and two-thirds contacted only one agent before moving forward. That's kind of like having your friends set you up on a blind date, then marrying that person by Date No. 2. (Hello, ugly future divorce!) After all, how can you be sure you made the right choice without looking around? Simple: You can't.
"One of the things I always tell my prospects is, 'I'm flattered if I'm the only Realtor you are speaking to, but I think it's best if you speak with two or more so you can draw comparisons and make a powerful decision,'" says Brett West, an agent with McEnearney Associates. Trust us, there can be a huge difference between an agent who's "good enough" and one who's stellar -- the difference between finding your dream home or not, and saving or wasting tens of thousands of dollars.
So the extra legwork you do now could really pay off in the (not so) long term. Be sure to explore at least a few options and grill them thoroughly before settling down with one (more on that next).
Ask all of these questions. This is no time for being shy:
- How long have you been in real estate? You're looking for a seasoned agent -- and while she doesn't need decades of experience under her belt, less than a year or two of experience can be concerning.
- How long have you lived in this area? One noteworthy exception to the previous question is if she's lived in the area for a long time. "A newly licensed agent shouldn't be automatically removed from consideration," says Mindy Jensen, a Realtor with Equity Colorado Real Estate. "If they've lived in the area their entire life, they likely know more about it than an agent who has been in the business for years but only recently moved to the region." Weigh overall experience against local experience when making your decision.
- Do you have a team, or do you work alone? Many standalone agents are excellent, but don't ignore the value of a team. "Working with a team is important," says Puma. "It increases response time and availability. Often, solo-run agents are double-booked when you need their attention, and you may lose that perfect property."
- What is your schedule? If they're not a full-time agent, you need to know when they'll be available. "If the only time you can see houses is in direct conflict with times they have to be working their other jobs, you could miss out on a lot of properties," says Jensen.
- Do you have any vacations planned? If they're heading out of the city anytime soon, make sure they have a back-up in case you find the perfect home while they're out of the country. "Murphy's Law rules Realtor vacations," says Jensen.
Found that special someone? It's time to move to the next step of our 2016 Home-Buying Guide. Finally, the fun part: Shopping around and finding your fantasy, dream home -- but in the real world! We can hardly wait.