By Melinda Fulmer of MSN Real Estate
Angela Joplin thought she and her husband had found the right real-estate agent to help them land their first home in San Diego.
The busy agent with a prestigious firm seemed like a good choice initially, but Joplin said it became clear as the months wore on that this agent didn’t have their best interests at heart. The agent made the couple pull up all of their own listings — only reluctantly agreeing to go out and see a few with them — and then arrived late most of the time.
“She treated us as though we had this air of desperation about us, like we were bottom dwellers in the market and there were so many more important people she had to respond to faster,” Joplin says.
She called the couple about houses way out of their price range and told them they shouldn’t waste their time looking at the inside of the houses, but to instead just drive by and call her to put in an offer if they liked the looks of the place. Even so, she often wouldn’t get back to them in time to deliver a winning bid.
The couple wound up making nearly 20 offers in the two years they worked with this agent and didn’t wind up with a house. Still, Joplin held on to the relationship, she says, because she didn’t know that this wasn’t the way most agents operated and wasn’t sure how to end it.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Joplin says. “I thought she was like any other normal agent.”
Buying your first home is one of the most important decisions of your life. Yet most people lack in-depth knowledge of the process and aren’t sure what an agent should do for them (or not do, for that matter).
When you lack experience, how can you tell if you have a good, bad or incompetent agent working for you? Here’s a list of the seven tip-offs that it might be time to call it quits with your agent — along with seven practices of the good ones.
1. The agent doesn’t listen
Right off the bat, an agent should ask you several important questions:
- How long have you been looking?
- Are you pre-qualified and, if so, for what type of loan?
- What time frame are you looking to move in?
- How much are you looking to spend?
- What type of house and how many bedrooms are you looking for?
- Are good schools important?
- What neighborhoods are you interested in?
If he keeps showing you things that are outside your chosen neighborhoods, school districts or budget, then you might have a problem. Ditto if you are looking for a single-story home on a quiet street and he keeps showing you condos in a busy complex on Main Street.
“If the client says to me, ‘I want a three-bedroom house with a fireplace,’ and I show them something different, I need to explain and say why I’m doing it,” says Deborah Engel, an accredited buyers agent with Prudential California Realty in San Diego.
Good agent: Before you get in a car with an agent to look at that first home, he should go over the process, how he operates and what he charges, and get a good understanding of your “needs, wants and wishes” says Adorna Carroll, a Connecticut broker, real-estate consultant and course instructor.
Moreover, a good agent should preview most of the homes he is trying to sell you, so he doesn’t waste your time. If a house is a big fixer inside or has an enormous dead tree in the backyard, your agent should know about it before you agree to go, says Dorcas Helfant-Browning, principal broker with Coldwell Banker Professional in Virginia Beach, Va., and a past president of the National Association of Realtors.
2. She’s inexperienced
Real estate is a full-time job. If your home search is someone’s side job, you should probably take this as your cue to move on.
Someone who works another job in addition to her real-estate gig probably isn’t able to scan the listings as often as she should — at least twice a day to catch everything — and you can bet she isn’t able to get back to listing agents, mortgage brokers and others as quickly as a full-time agent.
Moreover, if the agent lacks experience, contacts and credibility, she might have a harder time securing that winning bid for you, everything else being equal, Carroll says. Listing agents like to work with other agents that they know can get the deal done, she says.
A few signs that they’re green:
- She doesn’t make sure you’re pre-approved for a loan before they get in the car with you to look at listings.
- She doesn’t prepare a detailed market analysis with comparable values for the same type and size of property when you’re getting ready to make an offer. And they can’t tell you the reasons you might want to offer more or less on a property.
- She can’t fully explain parts of the sales contract, or what they can and can’t do for you under the law.
- She doesn’t inform you about homeowner associations and restrictions, if you are looking at a planned community or condominium complex.
- She violates fair housing rules by talking about the ethnic makeup or religious background of people living in the neighborhoods you’re interested in.
Good agent: A good agent will, of course, be licensed by the state and have the transaction experience and confidence to negotiate effectively in a competitive market.
Preferably, she should have some sort of additional training, such as Accredited Buyer’s Representative (ABR) certification or be a graduate of the Real Estate Institute (GRI), to let you know that she is circulating in the real-estate community and committed to the business.
3. She’s abusive
Do not should stand by your agent if you are treated poorly. That means no yelling, critical comments or badgering you if you’re not ready to make an offer on a property or don’t want to spend more than you had originally discussed.
“Our job isn’t to tell clients what to do, it’s to counsel them and let them know what their options are,” says Suzette Baker, an agent with Coldwell Banker Alliance Realty in Whittier, Calif. “They should want to keep you in your budget.”
And your agent shouldn’t try to talk you out of something you really want. She can offer you guidance, but she shouldn’t be telling you to “get real” if you want three bedrooms instead of two.
And no one should be made to feel bad for spending less. There should be the same level of customer service whether you are spending $180,000 or $580,000.
Good agent: A good agent should be your “guardian angel,” protecting you in the transaction and welcoming questions about the area or the process.
“They should make it clear that you are not imposing, and they are happy to deal with you,” says Ilona Bray, author of “The Essential Guide for First-Time Homeowners.”
4. He is unethical or manipulative
A good agent shouldn’t try to manipulate you and should never steer you in the direction of doing something immoral or unethical, Bray says. The National Association of Realtors has a code of ethics that you can find on their website realtor.org.
“They shouldn’t say, ‘I know this inspector will write up a report saying that the chimney is falling over when it’s really not,'” Bray says. “If they are really willing to mess with someone that way, they might do the same to you.”
Indeed, Bray says, one classic ploy by some agents is to take you to the worst, ugliest house in your area right off the bat — one that is nothing like the place you told him you’re looking for — to gauge how low you would go and to get you more interested in the mediocre places he will present next.
Moreover, an agent shouldn’t try to push any business relationship on you. While most agents will recommend mortgage brokers or home inspectors they trust, an agent shouldn’t insist that you use them, and should not enlist themn your behalf without getting your permission.
Agents should also provide full disclosure of any other parties they are representing in the transaction, such as the seller, an arrangement called “dual agency.”
And she should behave professionally, not seeking to befriend you, manipulate you or reveal too much embarrassing personal information about herself.
Joplin’s agent, for instance, used her personal problems — detailed accounts of her husband’s methamphetamine addiction — to gain sympathy and keep them hanging on when she was late or dropped the ball on an offer.
Good agent: A good agent shouldn’t have to pull a fast one to get you a good deal. And he shouldn’t push anything on you. However, he should make sure that you do your due diligence and don’t pass up any home inspections, Helfant-Browning says.
5. He betrays you
Your personal information should be held in confidence, no matter how seemingly inconsequential.
For instance, Carroll says, an agent should never tell the listing agent that you “really loved this house.”
And he should never reveal your motivation, budget or the urgency behind your offer, such as that you are getting divorced and really need a new place, or that you’re getting evicted from your current rental and would therefore be willing to pay a little more.
“They are not at the top of the game if they betray confidential information from their client,” Carroll says.
Good agent: An experienced agent should know how to negotiate effectively without revealing anything other than your offer, your priorities and the terms of your financing.
6. She doesn’t have time for you
A busy agent might not have all the time in the world to spend on the phone, but she should respond in a timely manner.
Of course, that amount of time may vary depending on what exactly you’re calling about. If the question isn’t time-sensitive, our experts say it could take as much as a day for her to call you back.
But if there’s an offer you want to put in or you are in the midst of negotiations on a house or moving paperwork back and forth, the agent or someone from her team should get back to you within the hour.
“With real estate, timing is everything,” Engel says. “If you can’t get ahold of your agent, you can’t get things done in a timely manner.” Indeed, when bidding on a house with multiple offers, a delay of four hours might mean losing it.
Likewise, if you can’t get your agent to drive out to look at houses in all of the neighborhoods that you’re interested in, you’re better off going with another agent.
Good agent: You want someone who won’t leave you hanging, whether it’s on a question about financing or your decision to put in an offer. Engel takes paperwork with her when she shows houses so clients can put in an offer on the spot.
7. He’s pushy
Real estate can be fast-paced and a little cutthroat, but your agent shouldn’t be playing hardball all the time.
Real estate is a business built on relationships, and you can be put at a disadvantage if your agent has a reputation as being difficult, if he offends other agents or makes screeching demands or ultimatums.
Great agent: A good agent knows how to diplomatically push for the things that are of absolute importance to you, without offending the listing agent. He should be persistent, Carroll says, but he shouldn’t let his ego get in the way or get insulted easily.
“If the buyer can be in the same room and hear their agent having a cordial conversation — not rolling over, but cleverly finding ways to press the other agent on things, that is a great agent,” Bray says.
You don’t want someone passive or shy about calling the other agent, Bray says, but you don’t want someone who’s “combative from the start.”
A final note about breaking up: Once you’re ready to break up with your agent, make sure you have this dissolution in writing. That protects you from paying unnecessary commission and keeps the agent from continuing to work on your behalf after you’ve moved on. Make sure you have the agent revise a contract of representation if you signed one to make it clear that the relationship has been cancelled.
And when you look for your next agent, get recommendations and interview a few of them first. Ask questions about their background, how many transactions they close a year — preferably 10 or more (five of them on the buy side) — and how they like to operate. Get references.
There can be a happy ending in less time than you think if you have the right representation.
Just ask Joplin. One month after taking on Deborah Engel as their new agent, she and her husband found a nice house well within their price range, just nine blocks from the beach.
“We got a great house.” Joplin says. “We’re really happy here.”