First-Time Buyer's Series: What Your Agent Actually Does and How to Pick the Right One
Finding the right agent is clutch. And in a seller's market this can be difficult to do, especially if you have a smaller budget. You may have called or emailed many agents and found that they simply never got back to you. Don't be discouraged. Buying a home is a challenging process, even in the best of times, so you have to be resilient if you want to end up becoming a home owner.
Photo Credit @ Jaye Haych
The first thing you should know is you need to get your own agent. No, seriously. What I mean by that is when you go to an open house and meet an agent, even if you fall in love with the house and you click with the realtor, they do not represent you. They represent the seller of the home and their fiduciary duties - meaning their loyalties - belong to the sellers first. While some states allow dual agency, where they are technically allowed to represent you as well, it's not really something I would recommend. It's a major conflict of interest. You want an agent who is looking out for you and your best interests alone. This will ensure you get the best possible deal and service that you can.
Photo Credit @ Ben Kolde
The other thing you need to know is what an agent does for you. This sounds silly, especially because I'm embarrassed to say that didn't understand or appreciate the full scope of the services until I actually became one. Sure you can buy a home without an agent but it will take a lot more time, energy and knowledge. Plus you will most likely miss out on one of the main benefits they provide: their local connections. Here are just a few of the items that agents handle when they represent you:
send you MLS listings that meet your criteria as well as pocket listings they have access to
guide you towards listings that may not fit your initial criteria but may actually be a better fit for you based on their experience working with many buyers
educate you about the current market and trends and what to expect
educate you about city projects in the works that will affect your property value over time
introduce you to the amenities of the neighborhood
look up data regarding taxes, flood plains, topography and property encroachments
schedule and conduct showings
provide some design ideas or suggestions on how a space could function better for you and your needs
negotiate offers using creativity in order to get them accepted by standing out from the crowd
educate you about the home buying process and what to expect
use their network to recommend other people that you will need (inspectors, contractors, lenders, title companies, etc.)
keep you updated on the progress of the purchase after the initial offer has been accepted
schedule pre-closing walk through
prepare essential paperwork (contracts, leases, deeds, disclosures, closing statements, etc.)
ensure everyone has the paperwork needed on closing day
handle getting the deposit to where it needs to go
celebrate with you when you get your keys
and lots, lots more.
They do a lot, actually. They are the glue that keeps the deal together. They will hold your hand throughout the process, be the shoulder to cry on, be the therapist, and be everything that you need when it gets overwhelming. If the process already seems like a lot, I recommend you get an agent and don't try to go it alone your first time around.
So once you have decided you definitely want to buy, it's time to find the right agent for you. Here is the advice I usually give my friends and clients when they are looking to find a real estate agent to work with:
Match the agent to your goal
What is your goal as a buyer? Are you buying a home you intend to live in or an investment property? Is it crucial you get a bargain price? If so, are you willing to look at bank REOs and foreclosures or are you only looking for a turnkey property? What is your budget? How much have you been pre-approved for? What neighborhood do you want to live in? What are your "must-haves"? Short commute? Square footage? Outdoor space? New construction? A home with "charm"?
Photo Credit @ Markus Winkler
Take some time to really drill down and figure out what you want first. Create a checklist or an outline of what criteria you are looking for. Put pen to paper so that you are clear what you are searching for while knowing that this may possibly change as you begin to explore your options.
If you are an indecisive person, this will be a challenge for you. Sometimes first-time buyers wait to set their goals after they start looking around. This would be a mistake. Not only would this make you a "less-than-ideal-candidate" for becoming a client to a real estate agent in a hot market, but it significantly increases the risk of you being persuaded into buying something that may possibly cause you a bad case of buyer's remorse later. You and only you can know what it is you are really looking for. Yes, real estate agents are there to help guide you, and sometimes they can lead you in a direction that is actually a better fit for you in the end, but you have to come to them with a sense of what you think you want to start off.
Once you have that outlined, research real estate agents that specialize in that niche and that align to your main goals. If you want to be in a certain neighborhood, look for experts in that neighborhood. If you want to buy a duplex and live in one half and "house hack it," look for a real estate agent who works with investors and has helped them find this before. If you are an investor, ideally your real estate agent invests themselves. And if you are jumping straight into your forever home, and you have the cash, look for real estate agents that tend to work in that budget range.
Feel free to ask your friends and family for recommendations. That is always a good place to start, but just know their goals and personalities are different from yours. They may have connected well with a real estate agent because their criteria is different. That agent's expertise may not be suitable for your needs. Also strongly consider whether or not you want to work with family or friends. It's great to support them and their business, but if something should go wrong there is the potential it may affect your relationship long term. So be mindful of this before you hire them.
How knowledgable are they?
This is extremely important for first-time buyers. You need an agent who knows what they are doing because you will be relying on them heavily to guide you through the ups and downs of the process. With this being said, every transaction is different and teaches you something new each time. This is true for both the buyer as well as a tenured real estate agent. That is just how real estate goes because of the fact that every property, homeowner and jurisdiction are different.
You need someone who knows the general process thoroughly but also has systems in place to find out necessary information that may arise throughout the process. Do they themselves have a mentor? How many houses have they listed or sold in the area? How many buyers do they work with on average? Keep in mind that higher numbers here doesn't necessarily equate to better service. Sometimes super busy agents are actually very hard to get a hold of and are more interested in getting deals done than finding the right fit for the client.
Photo Credit @ Priscilla Du Preez
Is your agent new to the industry? If so, they may not have a lot of sales yet, but they may have more time to devote to you and be more interested and able to in your success as a buyer. Sometimes when agents are so well known, they also are spread too thin and may not have time to help educate you about the process along the way.
How well connected are they?
Part of why you hire a real estate agent is because of their network. They should be able to recommend people to help you along in the process. Buying a home involves working with a range of professionals including but not limited to: lawyers, inspectors, lenders, title companies, surveyors, contractors, property managers, etc. A really great real estate agent knows most of these professionals in your town and should be able to recommend a few options that he/she believes does good work. While they cannot tell you exactly who to hire (and it's a red flag if they give you just one name), you ultimately make that decision for yourself. A good real estate agent will be able recommend solid choices based on their previous client's experiences with them.
Are they responsive?
I touched on this earlier, but in hot seller's markets you need someone who responds quick because properties go fast. Sometimes the agent who is able to respond quickly isn't the agent in high demand that everyone is using. Sometimes its the newer agent who is starting out and really interested in providing top service so that you can help build their referral network with a positive review to all your friends and family members.
Photo Credit @ Priscilla Dupreez
Let's also be clear, responsive doesn't mean you call at 2 AM because you couldn't sleep, found a dream listing, and wanted them to put in an offer immediately that second. Don't be unrealistic with your expectations. Yes, your agent needs to be accessible, but it is also important for you to understand that if they are professionals they will set boundaries for themselves. They too are trying to have a work/family life balance and deserve to be able to tell you when and how they will be accessible versus when they won't be available. Ask from the beginning so you are clear. And if they do say they will get back to you within a certain time frame, they should.
And while this may be hard to hear: don't be a jerk. In a hot market, real estate agents don't need to spend time on extremely demanding clients and they won't. Be reasonable with your expectations and give them a reasonable amount of time to get back to you. If they exceed your expectations, great! If they don't get back to you in a reasonable time frame consistently, then consider finding someone else. It's gotta work both ways.
Do you feel comfortable with them?
This is the biggest factor. Listen to your instincts, always. Do you trust this person? Do you enjoy being around them? If the answer to either of these is no, move on and look for someone else.
Photo Credit @ Brooke Cagle
This person has to quickly become a good friend, in a professional way. They have to be able to be honest with you and tell you things you may not want to hear if you are being unrealistic about certain expectations. They may have to push you outside your comfort zone to get you what you ultimately wanted, but may not have known you wanted. They also will work harder for someone they like. You both have to have chemistry to make it work. Like everything in life it is a give and take.
Here are some recommended questions to ask:
Why did you choose to sell real estate in this community?
Do you attend town hall meetings? What sort of changes do you see coming to the community soon?
What direction do you see the market heading in?
What does being "investor-friendly" mean to you?
What services do you provide?
Are any parts of my criteria unrealistic? Why?
What times work best to communicate with you?
Which form of communication works best? Email? Text? Phone call?
Can you recommend a lender, property manager, contractor, painter, etc...?
Any agent who is a true professional will ask you to sign an agency agreement. They are legally obligated to disclose that they are an agent from when they first meet you and will probably ask you to sign an agency agreement for a limited time where they exclusively represent you. Many people are hesitant to sign this, and I get it. It's your prerogative. If you have done your due diligence though and found the person you want to work with, there really isn't any incentive not to sign it. It's like everything, if you make a commitment to buy from that agent, they are going to work harder to find you the perfect property because they have incentive to close on the deal with you. If you don't, they probably won't want to put in the extra time and energy because they know that at the last minute someone else could show you a property and all the time and effort they put in showing you properties was for naught.
The agreement is designed to protect both parties in the end. Just make sure you take the time to really research and get to know the person first to ensure that you both are a fit for each other.
Photo Credit @ Kelly Sikkema
Where to locate a real estate agent
There are many places to locate agents. Know that if you look on Zillow or other popular websites and they recommend a real estate agent to you as a "top seller" or a "pro," often that involves the agent having to pay for that promotion, so be wary.
If you are an investor, you can check out Biggerpockets.com. They usually have great recommendations, although they too are adding paying features now. For example, if someone is labeled a "pro," that means they bought the membership to the website, not necessarily that they are really great at what they do. Dive into their reviews more to figure that out.
I still heavily recommend word-of-mouth and Instagram. Those are truly reputation-based. If you type in a hashtag with your location and realtors, scroll through the list and see who is posting. Click on their profiles and check them out. That will give you a real solid idea of who they are as a person as well as the types of properties and listings they specialize in. Plus you can DM them right away and you will usually get a quicker response than emailing them.
Hope you find this helpful! Happy real estate agent hunting! And if you need any help feel free to DM me @MackofAllTradesNY on Instagram and I would be more than happy to find out what you are looking for and connect you with a real estate professional in your area that meets your needs!