Most of the time, the search from our home starts almost unintentionally, harmlessly – we snoop on a website we find on Google, or window shop at a local broker’s office. But once your search has become serious, it’s time to find the right agent to guide you through your deal.

The real estate agent you choose can make or break your home buying experience.

Getting a license in real estate does not require a college degree; one can finish the courses necessary and complete the test in as little as a few months! The last thing you want is someone pushing you to make a decision you’re uncomfortable with, or encouraging you to bid higher than necessary to increase their commission.

You want an agent who will respect your hesitations and fears, won’t push you beyond the budget you’re comfortable with, and is seasoned enough to really know their stuff when it comes to searching, inspecting, and purchasing time.

So where do you begin? Countless agents are eager to find their next client. How do you sift through the bunch to pick a real winner?

First-Time Home Buyers Guide: Starting Your Search & Selecting an Agent 

1. Get Referrals

Sometimes the best way to find an agent is through word of mouth.

If your friend is giving you a referral, you already have at least one person you know had a positive experience. Just beware of friends of friends who just became agents and are desperate to get their first few clients. You want a seasoned professional, not just a buddy.

2. Look at their Current Listings or Past Clients

An easy way to get a sense of an agent’s expertise is to check out their listings, or the listings which their clients have purchased. If you’re looking to buy a co-op apartment, it doesn’t make sense to hire an agent with an expertise in country estates.

Does the agent have a profile on their company’s website? Check their profile and browse through their listings. See if they are selling homes in roughly the same area and price range that you’re looking for.

The more experience they have in your area, the better they’ll be able to serve you in making recommendations and telling you about the buying and selling patterns of the neighborhood.

3. Look at their Credentials

When you read a real estate agent’s bio, the credentials and abbreviations can sound fancy enough – but how do you know which ones to look for and what they mean?

Real estate agents have many opportunities for continuing education and additional accreditations. A few of the designations that require additional training include CRS (Certified Residential Specialist), ABR (Accredited Buyer’s Representative) and SRES (Seniors Real Estate Specialist).

All of this additional training is fantastic, but just because an agent is willing to take extra coursework doesn’t make them experts in customer service.

But if you see that the agent has been nominated or awarded recognition from their brokerage or from other real estate associations, this should be music to your ears. Designations like “Agent of the Year” are not easy for a professional to come by – especially in very large brokerages!

4. Ask about their History

We mentioned earlier that it can take as little as a few months to get your license in real estate, and you definitely don’t want to trust an amateur when making a momentous decision like this.

One of the first questions you should ask an agent is how long they’ve been on the job and how long they’ve been buying/selling in this particular area. If it’s been more than 5 years, that’s good. More than 10? Even better. More than 20? You’re really getting an expert.

In addition to their history, do some digging to find out if they have any repeat clients. If an agent has clients who purchased a home with him/her as a buyer’s agent and later sold the home using the same person as their listing agent, that’s a great sign!

Nobody is going to re-enlist the services of someone who did an unsatisfying job.

5. Ask them about the Neighborhood

Having an agent that actually lives in the area you’re looking to purchase can have many advantages, particularly if they’ve lived there a long time. But whether they live locally or not, it’s important that they’re well versed in the recent history of the surrounding neighborhood.

When you interview an agent, as specific questions about the area and any concerns you might have. The more specific and concrete their responses, the better.

For example, ask them about any planned/new development in the area, the job market, or schools and if they have children that have attended them. One of my favorite questions to ask is: If you could improve one thing about this area, what would it be?

You don’t want an agent who is only pointing out the positives and ignoring any downsides of your purchase just to make a sale.

6. Starting your Search

Every real estate agent will have access to databases full of listings. Typically, when the owner of a home decides to sell a house and is using a real estate agent, the agent will list the home through a service available to all licensed agents, in addition to a variety of online search engines. This makes it easier for agents and potential buyers to find the property.

Additionally, you can do some of your own digging on websites like Zillow.com and Trulia.com. You can also check Craigslist do some jogging or driving around in order to find homes listed “By Owner” – meaning they’re not listed through a real estate agent and therefore less likely to be found on a typical real estate list site.

Look through listing websites with your family and collecting links to potential homes you’d like to see. You can also assist your agent by providing them with a “must have” list. This will help them narrow down their own group of listings to send you.

While a house might look perfect (or awful) in pictures, you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

Some agencies will pay a professional photographer to stage a home with nice furniture and take great pictures, but in person the property could appear much smaller or run down. Likewise, there are homes with very poor photos that may just turn out to be gorgeous once you’ve visited them in person.

The best way to know for sure is to start looking, and see as many as possible. For the first few houses you see, we recommend looking at one property at the lower end of your budget, one in the middle, and one at the top. This will give you a good sense of what you can expect and what might make a great deal!

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In this First Time Home Buyer’s Guide series, we will dig deeper into each of these sections and give you the lowdown on what to expect and do each step of the way.

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