How to Choose a Buyer’s Agent

When I am an old woman and look back on my life, I don’t think there’s anything I’ll remember more fondly than the years I spent working as a buyer’s agent. This is often considered an entry level position, but for me it was the ultimate in the helping professions.

I could tell you about the client who had such severe buying anxiety that we’d regularly spend an hour or more just sitting in an empty house while he was trying to find his calm. Or the many clients that never believed they’d own a house because they couldn’t save up a big downpayment. Or even the fellow that showed me, during his walkthrough, exactly where he planned to die (spoiler alert: it was in the kitchen in front of the fridge).

All of these people and hundreds more came into and out of my care over a decade ago and even now I look back on them fondly. I also consider each one a sort of success story because I did everything I could to ensure they were sent off on a firm financial footing (little did I know that nothing I could have done would have really protected them from the real estate crisis to come).

This is why I believe firmly in buyer’s agents. I was one. I know what they’re expected to be. But I also know something you may not: the extra help and layer of protection buyer’s agents provide will cost you nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I mean, if you want to get technical, the seller of your future home is going to figure into their home’s pricing a full commission (“full” meaning a portion for the buyer’s agent and a portion for the seller’s agent, even if that ends up being the same person), but they pay that whether you have a buyer’s agent or not.

Since the market’s getting ready to heat up and I’m sure you’re about to start looking at houses, I figured this was a good time to educate you about the wide world of buyer’s agency.

First Contact: Where You Meet Buyer’s Agents

Moving to Fort Worth reminded me that it can be really difficult to locate a buyer’s agent in a market that you’re unfamiliar with. Even if you’ve lived in the same town all your life, you probably know very little about the real estate market because that’s just not what you’re focused on. It’s OK. These are a few common places people find their agents and the reality behind them as networking tools:

Open Houses. Aside from referrals, which are kind of the ultimate way to find a buyer’s agent, open houses are your very best option. Choose neighborhoods where you’d like to live and go visit these events, even if you’re not quite ready or the house itself is wrong for you. Chances are good that the open house is being hosted by a buyer’s agent, not the seller’s agent. This is a really common practice. It helps sellers to get more exposure for their listings and the buyer’s agent hosting can collect leads. If it’s a slow day, you can spend some real time getting to know the agent  to see if there’s a spark.

The Internet. A modern answer to pretty much any and every question you might have. “How big is a badger?,” “Who owns the world’s largest pineapple farm?,” “Buyer’s agents near me” — if you need it, you can find it here. Unfortunately, there’s not much stopping a mediocre or even bad buyer’s agent to peacock around like they’re King of the Realtors on the surface. Does that mean you shouldn’t look for a buyer’s agent online? Of course not. Just check them out thoroughly before you commit. Searching for an agent that’s an accredited buyer’s agent (ABR) can help shortcut the vetting process by narrowing your field of candidates, but it doesn’t take an ABR to be a good buyer’s agent, if that makes sense.

sellers agentFor Sale Signs. No. Just no. The name on that sign is the seller’s agent for that house. They are literally not working for you and cannot, legally. They already owe their fiduciaries to their seller. In some cases, these people are considered transaction brokers or can act as such, but those are essentially neutral designation that mean they’re not working for anyone involved, they’re just writing the contract. Still not in your corner. A real estate transaction is a major financial jump, you need good representation. You need a buyer’s agent.

Asking the Right Questions

My business was mainly built on referrals, but even considering that, I can tell you that even now I’m shocked that so few people asked me any questions about my training or background, let alone the right ones. Don’t make this mistake, not every agent is me. 😉

If I could give you one piece of advice, I’d tell you to probe the experiences the agent in question has had, not just let them give you a number of years to use as a gauge of what they’ve done. I knew some agents that closed just one or two transactions a year. In a decade, they might have 20 sales. My team would do that in a few months during the slow season.

The questions you want to ask look more like this:

What was the hardest closing you’ve had? How did you handle it?

Buyer’s agents often get stuck holding the bag when things go wrong at closing. Although the seller is obviously upset that they didn’t sell their house when they expected to, they still have a house to go back to. Too often buyers, especially first timers, are so eager that they’re packed and ready to move in that day (I have literally been at closings where the buyer showed up in a U-Haul).

Today there are better protections in place for everyone on closing day, like the requirement that settlement statements be prepared and approved at least three days ahead of closing, but there can still be surprises. You need to know that your agent can be a calm professional and statesman who will try to find a work-around to make everybody happy..

Have you ever refused to close? Why?

There are the rare closings that you simply cannot advise your client to follow through with, regardless of what it will cost you financially. For example, you go to the walk-through and find that work that was requested and agreed to during the inspection period hasn’t been completed yet. This is when you have to play hard ball.

Sellers are generally granted ample time to perform repairs, so there’s really no excuse aside from massive acts of nature for this kind of delay. Even with a serious disaster involved, that seller needs to communicate so you can change your closing date to keep everything on track. If they’ve failed to do both, what’s to say that they haven’t failed in other areas or are going to fail you on paying for those repairs after all?

Have you ever been threatened with litigation from one of your buyers?

If an agent is involved in any significant number of transactions, they will be threatened with a lawsuit over something. Sometimes it’s just a threat because the client is lashing out due to frustration with a mess the seller left in a hidden spot. Sometimes the client is looking for a cash cow and assumes real estate agents are prime for the milking.

Sometimes the client has a legit problem and this is what you need to be listening for. If or when your potential agent admits to having been threatened with a lawsuit, pay good attention. Then call the Board of Realtors to which this potential belongs to see if there have been any complaints registered. They may refer you on to the state’s Association of Realtors for more information. Follow the trail, make sure any actual complaint is an isolated one and not a pattern.

Experience Isn’t the Only Thing That Matters

When you’re a Realtor, experience on paper isn’t always what matters. Of course you want your agent to know the law and how that applies to your situation, but there are traits that no amount of book education will ever teach. Buyer’s agents may be generally considered the low man on the ladder, but the truth is that they have to be extra clever to stand out among the throngs of entry-level real estate agents that take up the buyer’s agency yoke.

Look for an agent who:

  • Understands and has a reputation for following through with their responsibilities to the buyer, even if that means not getting paid (that whole walking away from closing thing is a good example).
  • Closes the tough to close, but fair, transactions because they’re resourceful.
  • Protects your financial future by speaking up boldly, not just letting the transaction happen to you.

Nowhere on that list is the mention of any kind of certification. Obviously, you want an agent who is actually an agent, but beyond that, a certification only means they took the test. It doesn’t say how well they did or how hard they fight for their clients. While it can be a differentiator to hold an ABR, ultimately it isn’t everything.

The Bottom Line: Buyer’s Agents are Never Optional

Whether you choose an agent who has a lot of experience representing buyers, but didn’t complete their ABR or you go straight to the ABR that your friend used to buy their house, it’s vital that you find a buyer’s agent that you can work with. They must be on the ball enough to keep your interests at heart and ensure that your financial future is bright.

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