As you mentally, emotionally, and financially prepare yourself to enter the 2023 housing market, you know that you’ll need more than just a real estate agent to guide you to success.
You’ll need a darn good one.
The trouble is, real estate agents are like guitar players: they’re everywhere, and they range in quality from part-time hobbyists to John Petrucci.
So, how do you connect with a true “virtuoso” of real estate who can help you find an amazing home at an equally fantastic price? How do you ask for referrals the right way? And once you have a list of candidates, what questions should you ask to vet their skills?
Finally, what should you look for in an agent if you’re selling a home?
Let’s investigate how to find the best real estate agent in 2023.
Why finding the right real estate agent matters
Before we find you the perfect real estate agent, it helps to know exactly what you’re looking for.
So what is a real estate agent? How do they get paid, and how are they different from realtors? Let’s cover the essentials.
What is a real estate agent?
A real estate agent is licensed by the state to help people buy, sell, and rent property.
A decent real estate agent will help you find and buy a house. But a good one will help you through the A-Z process:
- Establishing a budget.
- Finding a lender.
- Determining search criteria.
- Finding homes and “hidden gems.”
- Scheduling and attending tours together.
- Crafting a competitive offer based on market conditions.
- Scheduling an appraisal and home inspection.
- Helping you complete the piles of paperwork to close.
(As for selling, more on that in the final section below.)
What’s the difference between a real estate agent, a real estate broker, and a REALTOR®?
These three terms are often misused interchangeably, but you must know the difference:
- Real estate agents have passed their state’s real estate license exam and are completing continuing education to stay licensed.
- Real estate brokers are real estate agents who’ve also attained their broker’s license, meaning they can work independently.
- REALTORS® are real estate agents or other professionals who are members of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR). REALTORS® must maintain a spotless conduct record and always abide by the NAR’s strict Code of Ethics. According to NAR, roughly half of real estate agents are REALTORS®.
Does that mean you need a REALTOR®?
Not necessarily. Membership to NAR is optional, and plenty of skilled real estate agents aren’t REALTORS®.
How do real estate agents get paid?
If you were nervous about putting aside a budget to “hire” a real estate agent, don’t fret; they’re free.
Well, free to you.
Real estate agents get paid on commission — typically 3% of the home’s sale price, which the seller pays, not you.
If you’re the seller, it’s still worth it to work with a listing agent — and sell to a buyer’s agent — even though they’ll charge you 3%. Because at the end of the day, having pros guiding you through the cumbersome home-selling process will bring you more value than the 6% commission you relinquish from the sale.
Can I buy a house without using a real estate agent?
Would buying a house without using a real estate agent make you more appealing to sellers since you’d be saving them money?
In the vast majority of cases, no.
Since you’re (presumably) a first-time homebuyer, a seller will be glad to see that you’re using a real estate agent to help you through the process because a first-timer trying to navigate this labyrinth on their own will be perceived as naive at best, a massive liability at worst.
As for selling, similar rules apply. Many buyers and buyer’s agents see FSBO (for sale by owner) signs as a big red flag since it means they’ll have to deal with amateurs who may not have experience or realistic expectations.
The 3% commission is worth it in both directions to have a pro on your side.
What’s the difference between a selling agent and a listing agent?
OK, ready for a head-scratcher?
The sale of a home almost always involves two real estate agents:
- The listing agent represents the seller and helps them prepare and list the home for sale. They schedule and facilitate open houses, help the seller negotiate, etc.
- The selling agent represents the buyer. The agent helping a buyer buy a house is called the selling agent.
Here’s why finding the right real estate agent matters in 2023
Having the right real estate agent in your corner has always proved advantageous in the selling process, even more so in the buying process.
But now that the market’s become so heated, frantic, and competitive, it’s practically necessary.
We won a multiple offer scenario for our new house by the skin of our teeth because our real estate agent knew how to:
- Communicate effectively with our lender.
- Extract critical insights from the listing agent.
- Craft a compelling offer.
- Submit all of our paperwork promptly.
- Negotiate on our behalf with the listing agent and family.
If he had fallen short in any area, I wouldn’t be sitting in my new home office typing this. The sellers would’ve gone with a buyer/agent combo who had 100% of their ducks in a row.
Here’s how to find the right real estate agent to put in your corner.
1. Start within your network
According to real estate brokerage Compass, the No. 1 source of business for REALTORS® is referrals from past clients.
Asking your friends and family for a referral to a skilled agent is a great place to start. Especially considering that some of the most qualified real estate agents are referral-only, a three-way call with your cousin is the only way to get in their door.
However, keep in mind that not every real estate agent is suitable for every buyer, no matter their skill or experience level. Someone with 20 years of experience helping ritzy clients buy $2,000,000 McMansions in the city’s northwest sector may not be the right fit for someone looking to buy a starter home on the opposite side of town. They may know the tricks of the trade, but if they don’t know the area well, they’ll be learning alongside you, and their utility may be limited.
Therefore, just like a job referral, it helps to let your friends and family know exactly what you’re looking for.
If you post only this on Instagram and LinkedIn:
“We’re looking for a good real estate agent!”
You’ll probably get spammed with dozens of real estate agent email addresses, with no idea which ones are qualified to help you.
However, if you post this:
“Can anyone refer a good real estate agent who can help first-time homebuyers buy a townhome in Mabelton, Smyrna, or Kennesaw?”
You’ll get fewer referrals, but those you get will be much more qualified to help you.
Should you use your parents’ real estate agent?
Since the process of finding a real estate agent can be daunting, folks tend to default to using their “family” real estate agent.
There are pros and cons to this.
- The pro is that they’ll probably work hard to stay in your family’s good graces.
- The con is that just because they helped someone in your family buy a home doesn’t necessarily mean they’re qualified to search within your budget or geographic areas.
That being said, I still think it’s worth giving your family’s real estate agent a call. Be clear on your budget and which zip codes you’re searching within, and ask if they or anyone in their group or brokerage might be qualified to help.
Once you’ve compiled a nice list of one to three options from referrals, it doesn’t hurt to look online, too.
2. Look online
Unsurprisingly, Gen Z and Millennials are increasingly leveraging the power of the Interwebs to find a good real estate agent.
This is a perfectly viable option, and your timing is perfect because a few neat websites have popped up recently to help connect you to a solid real estate agent.
We like HomeLight.
Try a service like HomeLight
HomeLight was founded by a Millennial who, like us, found the process of connecting an excellent real estate agent to be quite clunky, confusing, and old-fashioned.
Thus, he created a free service that asks you a few simple questions (what’s your budget? where are you looking?) and connects you to skilled, reputable real estate agents in your area.
We’re a fan of the crisp and simple design and how it follows through on its simple promise. Check out our full review where we gave HomeLight a 9 out of 10, or visit HomeLight to build your list of potential agents.
3. Interview three to five candidates (and ask these questions)
Between soliciting referrals and tinkering with HomeLight, you’ll eventually develop a solid list of three to five potential candidates.
Now what? Who “gets the rose,” so to speak?
It pays to spend at least 10 minutes on the phone with each potential candidate, vetting them by asking simple questions. Don’t worry; these questions will make you look informed and well-prepared without sounding entitled or standoffish. They’ll respect you for asking them.
Your choice will likely become pretty clear based on their responses to these questions.
As an agent, do you work part-time or full-time?
There was a time when the market was so calm, inventory so plentiful, and buyers so few that you could buy a house while working with an agent who clocked out after lunch and skipped Wednesdays.
Those days are over.
Today’s buyer’s agents often work 50 to 80-hour weeks because that’s what it takes to win contracts. If you find a house you love on Friday morning that has an open house Sunday night and will pick an offer by Tuesday, you better hope you’re working with someone full-time.
How many buyers/sellers are you working with at the moment?
Having too few clients (between one and five) can signify that they’re not experienced or skilled enough for your business.
Having too many at once (more than 20) can mean they won’t have time for you when it counts.
Therefore, somewhere between 10 and 20 clients is a healthy sign that they’re skilled but will still have time and capacity to take you on.
What’s your experience with helping first-time buyers/sellers?
This isn’t a make-or-break question, but it does remind them that despite your intelligent questions, you are still a noob at the process — and that they shouldn’t gloss over the details.
Someone who has experience working with first-timers — or better yet, prefers it — will be a more thorough and patient mentor through the process.
What’s your experience buying/selling in the areas where we’re looking, and what trends are you seeing there?
There’s an old saying in real estate that the three most essential factors in a home’s value are:
Therefore, if a real estate agent doesn’t have experience buying or selling in that neighborhood, they’re zero out of three for the necessary qualifications.
By contrast, an agent who knows the area will know if prices are under or overinflated, what appreciation will look like, what the schools are really like, and more.
Can you recommend a lender?
One key indicator of a real estate agent’s skill and experience is an excellent connection to a lender. And it’s not just a litmus test, either, since having that lender/agent relationship already in place can significantly smooth things out in the latter stages of the process.
Thankfully, my agent and lender ended up getting along, but my agent said he prefers working with his lender because “if he doesn’t return my calls, I can go shake him out of bed.”
How do you help win contracts in such a competitive marketplace?
Finally, throw this humdinger their way and see what they do with it. Ask them how they negotiate for the best price if you’re selling.
In addition to giving you a peek at their confidence, skills, and experience navigating this wild market, this question will reveal more of their overall “vibe.”
Are they cold and professional? Naive and green? Fun-loving and jovial? Calculating? Emotional?
It’s OK to assess and judge an agent by their vibe because this isn’t just a professional relationship. It can get personal.
Still not sure? Follow your gut
If you’re still struggling to choose from your final list of agents, ask yourself one last, simple question:
Who would you like to work with?
Our final list came down to two agents with similar experiences, equally impressive skills, and divergent personalities.
- Juliet was kind, soft-spoken, and mindful of the emotional element of the process. (“Remember not to lose sight of what you’re looking for: a home…”)
- Joseph was blunt, direct, and didn’t let emotions get in the way of our buying experience. (“This house is a total turd wagon, let’s move on.”)
For me, Joseph was the obvious choice. I wanted someone who wouldn’t mince words and get us through the process as quickly and efficiently as possible; emotions be damned.
But who would you choose?
Remember; you’ll be spending a lot of time with this person, so it’s essential to pick someone who’s not only skilled but agreeable. Meshable with your personality. A partner, not just a professional.
How agents differ for buyers and sellers
A good seller’s agent will help you stage and price your home, hire a professional photographer to make it look twice the size, and market your home to potential buyers. Like a buyer’s agent, they’ll also help you navigate all of the required paperwork at the end of the journey.
Most of the same principles above apply if you’re looking for a top-notch seller’s agent. You’ll still want someone full-time with experience selling homes at your price range and within your geographic area.
Some of the key differences will be obvious. For example, when soliciting referrals on social media, it helps to remind your network that you’re looking to sell, not to buy, since most folks will assume that someone our age is looking to buy.
That all being said, here’s a small supplement to the above tips just for selling:
Bonus referral source: your neighbors
Who better to sell your place than the agent who sold your neighbors’ place last week?
There are tons of advantages to using your neighbors’ listing agent. They already know the neighborhood and how to sell it, but they probably already have a list of buyers looking in your area.
Heck, maybe your neighbors’ second place bidder will pay top dollar for your place!
You can often find agents with experience selling within your community by simply looking on Zillow/Realtor.com, connecting with your homeowners’ association/community manager, or simply asking your neighbors directly. Either the family who just moved out or the family that just moved in should still have the contact info for the listing agent handy.
Connecting with an excellent real estate agent can take a week or two, but the effort and due diligence are worth it. Because the right real estate agent can accelerate your path to homeownership, smooth out rough edges along the way, and save you immeasurable time and stress.
And if you need help getting your finances in order before you solicit an agent’s help, you’re in the right place. Check out Buying your first home? Make sure you’re financially prepared with these steps.
Featured image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com