How to Find the Best Real Estate Agent

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You can buy or sell a house without a real estate agent, but unless you're a great negotiator with a flair for paperwork, it would probably be a mistake. A good real estate agent has the local market knowledge to put you in the right house and the negotiating skills to potentially save you thousands of dollars in the process. If you're contemplating buying a house, particularly if this is your first time, you shouldn't be asking whether or not you need an agent but how to find the best one to suit your needs.

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Plenty of online tools can help you in your search, and you should take advantage of them, but we're talking about your home, and that's personal. The vast majority of homebuyers prefer a face-to-face or teleconference meeting before hiring a real estate professional. How do you narrow the field, which might include thousands of candidates in a large metropolitan area, to just a few? For that, you can take advantage of a number of online and offline resources.

Get Preapproved First

The homebuying process will be more streamlined and productive if you shop around for a lender and get preapproved for a loan at the start, even before interviewing agents. Preapproval tells you exactly how much house you can afford, so your agent won't waste time searching for listings that are out of your price range, and when the agent does find your dream home, preapproval makes it more likely that your offer will be accepted. Getting preapproval also helps you get your finances in order and understand all the costs involved in a real estate transaction so the agent doesn't have to explain all that, and you can get right down to business.

Look for a Realtor With a Capital "R"

A Realtor® is a real estate agent who belongs to the National Association of Realtors® (NAR), has completed an in-depth training course and adheres to the NAR code of ethics. The NAR maintains a nationwide database of Realtors®, so you can search there to find an agent in your area. Some Realtors® and real estate agents have undergone training to make them more knowledgeable in specific niche areas and are certified in those areas. If you're buying a home, you'll benefit by working with an Accredited Buyer's Representative (ABR), and if you're a senior, consider hiring a Senior Real Estate Specialist (SRES).

Not being a Realtor® doesn't mean a real estate agent isn't professional or ethical. The difference is akin to having your car repaired by a licensed mechanic or a local handyperson who charges less. Your car gets fixed either way, but if something goes wrong a few days later, the licensed mechanic is more likely to take responsibility and follow up because you can file a complaint with the licensing agency.

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Get Personal Referrals

The most common way to find a real estate agent is by word of mouth. Ask your neighbors, work colleagues and extended family members, especially those who have recently bought or sold a home, for recommendations. A personal referral, especially from someone you trust, carries a lot of weight, but there's one caveat: You're just asking for conflicts of interest if you hire friends or family members. It's better to keep your business and personal relationships separate.

If you're moving to another location, you can often get a referral from the real estate agent or brokerage firm that is helping you sell your present house. If you worked with a large brokerage firm with a nationwide presence and you had a positive experience, you might want to "stay in the family" and contract with that firm in your new location. Another way of finding the right real estate agent, especially for first-time homebuyers, is by attending open houses, where you can get up close and personal with agents looking for new clients.

Do Some Online Research

It's amazing what you can turn up using Google or another search engine. Even better, you can use a real estate site like Zillow or Realtor.com, which is the NAR portal. Many sites, including Zillow and RateMyAgent.com, provide ratings and reviews, which can really help narrow your search. No site can tell you if a particular agent will meet all your needs or be compatible, though, so it's important to look at the website of all prospects to get an idea of their specialties and an idea of how they operate.

Unless you live in a small town or you're planning to move to one, it's a good idea to include your neighborhood or the one to which you want to move — not just the city — in the search terms to connect with an agent who is familiar with the local market. It's also useful to combine this with a broader search covering the city to track down overachievers who cover a wider range.

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Schedule Interviews

Once you've narrowed the field, it's time for face-to-face meetings, and that's plural because there should be more than one. You may be wowed by the chemistry you have with the first agent you interview and decide to stop there, but most of the time, this won't happen, and there will be things you like and dislike about each agent you meet. One agent may be highly relatable but lacking a history of successful closings (six per year is average), and another may have a great closing history but be too busy to give you much attention, while still another may be affable and organized but doesn't work full time in real estate, which can potentially be a red flag.

To find the best real estate agent, interview questions should include intangibles, such as the walkability of a particular neighborhood. Check whether the agent has a good network of professionals to support the homebuying process and ask about experience, specifically details about the agent's last two or three transactions. The way the agent answers this last question will give you a pretty good idea of how she operates and how she will approach working with you as a client.

Finally, be sure to get two or three references and check them out by making phone calls or exchanging emails. An agent who gets glowing reviews from former clients is a better bet to represent you than one who gets panned with faint praise. If your prospective agent works with a brokerage firm, it's also a good idea to get a review from the head of the firm, but that is understandably not as reliable as reviews from former clients.

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Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.