How to Choose a Buyer’s Agent

Thinking about going it alone on your next real estate search? You might think that would save you money, but it could in fact prove to be a costly mistake.

It’s no secret that real estate information is readily available to the public. Agents don’t hold a magical key to the mysteries of sales history, square footage or skeletons in the closet — although some agents may be more adept at spotting skeletons than others.

But even though the available data is almost limitless, it can create confusion in this age of “attention-surplus disorder.” What’s often unclear for buyers of homes on Capitol Hill are the micro-nuances of location, plus how nearly 150 years of restorations and renovations — some great and some dreadful — affect the worth of a home. These questions make any sort of value-based algorithm accurate only about 50 percent of the time. Websites like Zillow or Trulia, which give value assessments and dollar per square foot numbers–heck, even the Office of Tax and Revenue — are often spot-on only by accident.

The truth is, most active agents have seen what has sold and have intimate, real-time knowledge of the areas in which they work. If they have been at it long enough, they’ll know the alleys as well as the streets. We all know what you can see, but they know what you can’t see. Online sources have none of that.

For a buyer, it’s not unusual for it to feel daunting to commit to an agent, especially given the nagging feeling that the agent’s first and last goal is to get you under contract. But knowledge is power, and in my experience the vast majority of successful agents have an abundance of knowledge and are willing to share it so their clients will tell others about a successful transaction.

How to choose your agent before signing a binding agreement is the question. Luck of the draw is one method, or maybe urgent need meets proximity. Or, you’ve found your dream home on a Sunday afternoon, and it just so happens that your bartender’s girlfriend’s cousin is licensed, he also happens to be at Tunnicliff’s and he’s sitting only two stools away! What a country!

But there is a more effective, simple way to choose your agent: do your research, seek references and make sure the references line up with where you want to live. Most agents and brokers can easily provide a printout of not only what they’ve successfully listed, but also what they’ve sold as buyers’ agents. The former info is more readily and publicly available, but the latter, regarding the buyer’s agent who brought the contract that sold the listing, is most easily accessed via other agents. Talk to people in the neighborhood; along with the usual questions about what it’s like to live there, and ask them who sold them their home. Many successful listing agents also work with buyers, provided that no conflict of interest exists.

Interview potential agents before signing with them. Ask them their understanding of the word “fiduciary.” Ask them how much in-person time they will spend with you looking at houses. In my opinion, agents need to learn about you as you learn the market. They need to know your negative buttons even more than your positive buttons. Agents need to be able to channel you as they are previewing new listings and hearing what may be on the market soon.

If you find an agent who you think might be a good fit, invite him or her to your home. I find great value in learning how my buyer clients live, not to mention in getting a free meal now and then …

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