For most people, a home will be the largest single transaction of their life. And the person that has the biggest impact on whether or not they are satisfied with that transaction is their Realtor. If you’re about to jump into the deep end of the housing market, take the time to make sure you’ve got the best possible lifeguard.

Choosing a Buyer’s Agent

A buyer’s agent spends immense amounts of time with prospective home buyers. A skilled and experienced real estate agent can help identify the aspects you most want to find in your home, explain the pros and cons of any given property, and act as a level head when you’re in the midst of buyer’s panic.

Look for these traits in a buyer’s agent:

Familiar with the Area

Although we often talk about the real estate market as if it’s a single entity, the “market” is actually made up of many thousands of micro-markets. Even individual cities can see wide swings in price and availability across neighborhoods. No one can be an expert in all of these markets, but you should search out a real estate agent with deep roots in the neighborhoods you’re interested in. Check the last time they were involved in a transaction in the areas you’d like to house-hunt. When you talk to an agent about a neighborhood, ask questions about parks, schools, entertainment options, and taxes. If your potential agent doesn’t know or can’t give a reasonable ballpark, then you may want to look for someone with more hands-on experience in that area.

Likeable

Sound a little touch-feely? Consider that your buyer’s agent is going to be someone you will spend hours with. You’ll be walking though homes, driving around town, exchanging emails and trading phone calls regularly throughout your home search. If you don’t like your Realtor, you’re not going to want to interact with him or her. And that leads to miscommunication, lost opportunities, and more expense in the long run.

You don’t need to be best friends with your real estate agent, but you do need to get along.

Record of Performance

Just like any other profession, ask for referrals. Many people find a real estate agent through a friend or family member who had a good experience. If you’re moving to an area where you don’t have connections, consider posting to a social media site and asking if anyone in that community has a recommendation they’d like to share. Just remember to find an agent who is an expert in the part of town you’ll be looking in.

Choosing a Seller’s Agent

When it comes time to sell your home, many people simply use the same agent that they bought their house with. That can be a fine decision. After all, if you trust the agent’s integrity and capabilities, why take a gamble on someone else?

But what if your buying agent has retired, moved away, or is otherwise unavailable? Or what if you just plain didn’t have a good experience with them when you bought your home? In that case, it’s time to find a seller’s agent.

It’s worth noting that you should view seller’s agents with slightly different criteria. You won’t be spending as much time with your agent when you sell as you did when you bought your home. A seller’s agent should help you asses your home, determine a price and sales strategy, and help smooth out the contract process. But since you won’t be crammed into a car with them for hours on end, and since this won’t be your first real estate transaction, it’s easier to have more of an arm’s-length relationship with a seller’s agent.

Similarly, while it’s a good idea to seek out a seller’s agent familiar with your neighborhood, this isn’t quite as important as on the buying side of things. Nothing can replace the years of experience that local experts bring to the table, but often a seller’s agent is able to determine the target price for your home by comparing it with other recent sales in the area (“comps”) even if they’re not deeply familiar with a neighborhood.

So what does matter when selecting a seller’s agent?

Quality Marketing

Check out the marketing material for other homes being sold by that agent. Are their MLS listings put together professionally? If they have flyers, is their picture bigger than that of the house they’re trying to sell?

Some seller’s agents will accept a listing, put it out into the world, and then ignore it. Since they don’t have to do any work, they view any sales offers that come in as almost “free money.” This type of agent might be fine, as long as you aren’t particularly concerned about when your house sells, or what kind of price you get. Demand quality service, and don’t short-change yourself.

Speaking of short-changing, make sure that you and your real estate agent are on the same page when it comes to selling strategy. Are you going to go for a specific price and hold out for months until you get it? Or are you going to go in low and hope for a bidding war? Establish a strategy ahead of time, and agree on what circumstances would make you change course.

Strong Communication

Once your home is listed, you want a real estate agent who will contact you with any potential offers, and help guide you through the negotiation process. After the contract is signed, that same level of communication is important to make sure that any inspections, walk-throughs, or other contingencies are handled in a fast, professional fashion. For your own peace of mind, it’s important that you don’t have to worry about whether your Realtor will call or not. He or she should be dependable and available to you throughout the process.

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