Finding an Agent

It's quick. It's cheap. It offers instant gratification. These are the principles by which me make so many of our choices in this fast-paced society. And while this attitude is fine when you're looking for a fast-food lunch while on a half-hour break for work, it's the worst possible mindset to be in when shopping for something as important as a new home.

That's why real estate agents exist. They simplify the home-buying process for you by leading you to potential homes and by guiding you through the process of actually purchasing a home. Basically, they minimize the headache that buying a home threatens to turn into, without the proper guidance.

Unfortunately, many home buyers let the quick n'cheap mentality kick in, and try to skip the step of finding an agent. Instead, they house-hunt on their own, thinking they'll find a house they like, then make an offer on their own to the listing agent (the agent working on behalf of the sellers, trying to sell their home). Not such a smart move. Why? Two reasons. One, many real estate agents specialize. They work almost exclusively with buyers, or exclusively with sellers. When you make an offer on your own, you're assuming that the agent will want to work both with you and with the seller. Plenty of agents out there simply do not want to deal with both parties at once. There are some agents, called dual agents, that work with both parties; however, the majority focus on one or the other. If you make an offer, the listing agent might just tell you to find yourself a buyer's agent anyway. You've just found a home you really, really want to buy; do you really want to spend time tracking down an agent now?

Why Not To Go It Alone

The other reason doing the whole house-hunt thing yourself is a bad idea is this: you're losing valuable time. While you're out searching the net, combing home sale magazines, and scouring neighborhoods, the home of your dreams could be sitting just around the corner, in the process of getting sold to someone else. Think about it: you're checking out homes that may or may not meet your criteria on your own, during your own time, in addition to working or completing any other day-to-day tasks that you may have. You're bound to unknowingly skip over a few great houses. As well, you're bound to spend time on a few losers that sounded great on paper, but aren't anything close to what you're looking for in reality. Imagine how frustrated spending what little time you have on these 'absolutely not' houses can be. And while you lay back and kick your feet up, exhausted after a long unsuccessful day of house-hunting, someone else is making an offer on a house that would have been perfect for you, had you only spotted it a little bit earlier.

Now imagine having an agent to do all that dirty work for you. While you're at work, the agent is off checking out all kinds of properties for sale in all kinds of areas. Actually, a really good agent will have checked out all kinds of properties well before you've even approached them; keeping up-to-date with current properties on sale is part of the agent's job. Rather than have to search through hundreds of ads yourself, the agent will have seen numerous properties and will know right away which ones do and don't meet your criteria. The agent, then, can weed out the losers for you right at the start, meaning you won't ever have to waste your time looking at something that's all wrong for you anyway. How's that for quick?

So, if you're on a hunt for a new home, the first thing you should really do is hunt down a good agent to help you with the buying process. Think of it this way: if you were a hunter out in the woods looking for game, would you track down a meaty animal, and then go buy your rifle?

Of course, it all sounds great in theory. But how do you actually find a buyer's agent? Or, more specifically and more importantly, how do you find a good buyer's agent?

A great place to start, if you can, is with referrals. Talk to friends, co-workers, and family members who have recently bought a home. If they were happy with the service they received from the agent, why not call him or her up? If you don't know anyone who has recently purchased a house, then just get the word out there that you're looking to buy. Tell anyone and everyone.  Someone is bound to get back to you with a name and number. Generally, home owners who are happy with their buying experience are more than happy to put in a good word for the individual who helped them purchase a wonderful home.


A word of caution when trusting referrals: make sure that it makes sense for you to contact the particular agent you've been referred to. If you want to move to the east end of a city, and the agent your sister used specializes in homes in the west, it might be better for you to look elsewhere. The agent won't turn down your business, but he or she will know a lot less about your prospective neighborhood than about the one he or she specializes in. This will be a disadvantage to you when it comes to trying to gain information about the community. As well, your agent won't be as aware of as many homes for sale in the east part of town than in the west. Similarly, the agent who helped your best friend's boyfriend purchase a slick downtown condo may not be the best choice to help you buy your suburban family starter home. He or she will likely have spent less time researching the market you're looking at, and won't have as much knowledge about suburban homes as will someone who specializes in houses in that particular area.

Ideally, you should aim to find yourself the kind of agent who knows a community inside out. This means more than just knowing how many public schools are in the area, or what the average home owner pays in utility bills. This means knowing which homes are for sale in the area, by which agent, and how long these homes have been on the market. Why? Because when you go in for an initial meeting with an agent, and tell him or her what kind of house you're looking for, you'll want that agent to instantly flip through his or her mental Roladex of homes, and start arranging viewings for you as soon as possible. Even if you aren't satisfied with his or her initial suggestions, at least you're out there getting an idea of what's on the market. At the same time, you've giving your agent a clearer picture of exactly what you want in a home. This picture is an additional tool your agent can use to find you a home.

Furthermore, you're not just buying a physical structure in which to dump your belongings. You're buying a home, and that home is comprised not just of the physical dwelling, but also of the surrounding community. An agent who specializes in a particular area can tell you all about that community, from services available to general community characteristics.

Other Ways to Find an Agent

Perhaps, like many prospective home buyers, you're finding yourself in the exact situation you're reading about above: you've been referred to a really friendly agent with a great reputation who knows absolutely nothing about the neighborhood and/or type of home you're hoping to buy. Even worse, perhaps you haven't been able to gather any referrals at all. What do you do?

Fortunately, there are many ways you can track down a good agent. One great method is right at your fingertips; literally! The internet has a wealth of information geared towards helping you find the right agent. Plenty of websites, including this one, contain directories that will help lead you to agents. You can also try search engines. Some online services allow you to chat anonymously with agents, conducting a cyber-interview before you actually commit to an agent. Many websites connect you to real estate agents home pages. Be sure to check these homepages out. Does the homepage say "I'm here to help you?" and does it back this claim up with testimonials and relevant information? Or does the site simply scream out, "I'm good! Hire me?" with no substantial evidence, other than a photo of a shiny-smiled agent? Use homepages to 'weed out' agents before deciding who to call.

Another option is tied in with that whole 'referral' thing we talked about a few paragraphs back. Perhaps you haven't been able to track down an agent that works in your neighborhood-to-be, but you have tracked down someone who works in a real estate related profession. For example, you may have tracked down someone who knows someone who knows someone else who works as:

an escrow officer homeowners insurance salesperson title representative loan officer

These professionals may be able to connect you to an agent who works in the area you're interested in. This process is especially useful in tracking down a real estate agent who is also a realtor, a member of a certified board of real estate professionals. Keep in mind that you may have to go through a few degrees of separation before you get to an agent. For example, your friend might now the escrow officer in her area, who might now the escrow officer in your prospective area, who will know a few real estate agents in that area. Because these people are professionals in the industry, they won't just send you to the Joe Schome (or Jane Schmoe) of real estate. They'll send you to someone they believe can do a good job.

A word of caution: if the individual you decide to speak to is a loan officer, ensure that it is a loan officer who deals mainly with purchase money first trust deeds and mortgages, rather than one who works primarily with refinances, second trust deeds, or finance companies. The latter type of loan officer won't work with realtors/agents on a regular basis, and won't have enough information to give a solid recommendation. However, he or she many know another loan officer who does speak to agents regularly. This is what we mean by being prepared to go through a few degrees.

Another option is to make phone calls to real estate offices. You can speak to agents at the office, or you can be a bit sneaky and ask who they would recommend from another office. Then, call that office and ask the same thing of them. In this way, you will find out which agents are good enough to gain the respect of the competition. However, this method can be a bit tricky to pull off. Why? Because no one wants to risk losing their commission to their competition. However, if the same name comes up in a few of your phone calls, you know you've tracked down an agent with a good reputation.

For the most part, homes for sale by a real estate agent are listed on the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS. All agents have access to the MLS, so really, all you have to do is find a real estate agency, phone them, and you'll find an agent willing to show you homes. However, you have no idea what kind of agent you're speaking to. Is it a quality agent, or simply an agent going through the motions? While calling agencies isn't a bad way to go, especially if you're having trouble tracking down a referral in the area in which you're hoping to buy, it's still a good idea to meet with a few agents before deciding which one you want to commit to.

Think about it. First of all, you'll be driving around with your agent, looking at homes. Then you'll have to actually walk though the homes with your agent. Once you've settled on a home, your agent will be part of the purchasing process, every step of the way. Why spend all this time with someone you can't stand? It's important to meet with this person several times and make sure that you like them, trust them, and value their opinions. That's why, no matter what method you use to track down potential agents, it's a very good idea to meet with a few of them and interview them before you make your final decision on who you want to work for you.