Buying or selling a home can seem overwhelming to people new to the process. Luckily, you don’t have to do it alone. An experienced real estate agent makes navigating the buying or selling process a smoother experience, and improves your chances of getting the best deal possible.

“Remember, your agent’s role is to represent you, negotiate on your behalf, guide you past potential pitfalls, and put your needs and wants above all else,” says Mark Pessin, chief learning officer at Realty One Group in Laguna Niguel, California. “Making the right choice is essential to your success in a home sale or purchase.”

Real estate agents’ experience and expertise vary, so it’s worth taking the time to pick the right one for you. Here are eight steps and tips for hiring a real estate agent who fits your needs.

1. Research and Prepare Before Looking For a Real Estate Agent

Though your real estate agent will guide you through the process of buying a home, they’re not there to hold your hand every step of the way and teach you everything that you need to know. It’s important to do some basic research to make sure you understand the general costs of buying a home, the local market, and real estate jargon.

Know the costs of buying a home

Being able to make the mortgage payment is just one piece of affording a home. Before you hire a real estate agent, be sure you’re ready and capable of buying a home so you don’t waste the agent’s time.

First, you need money for a down payment, which can be as little as 3.5% of the home’s purchase price or 20% to avoid private mortgage insurance. There are also upfront fees related to your mortgage, such as origination fees, title insurance, and other closing costs. Additional costs of buying a home include moving costs, homeowners insuranceproperty taxeshomeowners association dues, and more. 

Make a list of wants and needs

Your agent needs to know what you’re looking for in a home so they can show you relevant listings. Take some time to create a list of your must-haves and nice-to-haves to inform your agent’s search. This can also help you filter out agents who don’t have experience with the kinds of properties you’re seeking.

2. Get Preapproved for a Mortgage If You’re Looking To Buy

mortgage preapproval letter shows real estate agents and sellers that a lender will likely offer you a home loan. Agents may refuse to show you homes without proof you can get financing.

A preapproval letter also gives you an idea of what you can afford. Although it’s not a final guarantee, a mortgage preapproval shows how much financing you could get.

While you certainly don’t want to rush into a decision, keep in mind that preapprovals typically expire after 30 to 60 days.

3. Decide What Kind of Real Estate Agent You Need

Buyers have different needs compared to sellers, and both will want a real estate agent familiar with their side of the deal. There are also different types of agents, so you should be aware of the certifications and classifications that set them apart.

Choosing a real estate agent for buying

Buyers typically don’t pay their real estate agent directly. Their agent’s commission is usually split with the seller’s agent once the sale is complete.

The buyer’s agent and seller’s agent typically split a commission of 5% to 6% of the final price of the home. Your agent also may charge a real estate transaction fee to cover administrative services and paperwork. These fees should be explicitly stated in your contract.

“Fees and commissions vary widely from market to market, and are always negotiable,” Pessin says.

Your agent may recommend that you use a specific lender. According to the National Association of Realtors, real estate agents aren’t allowed to receive kickbacks from lenders for referring clients, so there’s no need to suspect your agent’s suggestions. Even if you trust your agent, however, consider doing your own search for a lender.

Choosing a real estate agent for selling

Also known as a listing agent, a seller’s agent helps prepare your home to sell by suggesting repairs or improvements to maximize its value and staging it for listing photos, tours, and open houses. They also help you set a price — a crucial part of the process. From there, the agent will search the market for buyers and represent you in making and closing a deal.

Because the seller’s agent helps put your home on the market and handles the sale, you want one who is experienced and versatile.

Dual agency

Dual agency is an arrangement where a real estate agent represents both the buyer and the seller. There are pros and cons to this approach. 

One benefit is that the agent is familiar with the property and the desires of both parties, which can make negotiation easier. The two parties also may be able to negotiate a slightly lower commission because the dual agent will receive both halves of it, as opposed to using separate buyer’s and seller’s agents where the commission would be split.

However, using a dual agent can bring up ethical issues and conflicts of interest, prompting some states to make dual agency illegal. 

What’s the difference between a Realtor and real estate agent?

You may hear the terms “real estate agent” and “Realtor” thrown around interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

A real estate agent has earned a professional license from the state. This requires completing some training and passing a written exam that covers federal and state-specific real estate laws.

A Realtor is a real estate agent who has joined the National Association of Realtors. NAR requires members to adhere to its standards of practice and a code of ethics.

So, how do you find a Realtor? You can use NAR’s directory to look up Realtors in your area and see any additional designations and certifications that they’ve earned.

“Agents that are learning-based tend to have more relevant knowledge and strategies for your success,” Pessin says. “There is no certification that can replace, or be a substitute for, good old-fashioned experience.”

What’s the difference between a broker and real estate agent?

A broker is a real estate agent who has completed additional education and licensure requirements. Often, agents work for a brokerage run by a more experienced broker.

4. Shop Around For Good Real Estate Agents

You should consider several candidates before deciding on a real estate agent. Don’t just go with the first person who pops up on Google. Look at their professional history, and get recommendations from people you trust.

Research real estate agents online

Begin by searching for agents in your area. Some real estate agents are affiliated with reputable companies and often benefit from the trust and visibility that comes with brand recognition. But don’t rule out independent real estate brokers who have a proven track record.

“You’ll also be able to see that agent’s sales history in the area you’re looking to buy or sell in, which can be an indicator of experience and expertise,” Pessin says.

Pay attention to online reviews. Visit agents’ websites or LinkedIn pages to see what experience they have and any awards they’ve earned.

Ask for referrals from your friends, family, and lender

Even though many agents look polished on paper, you still might ask yourself: “How can I find real estate agents I trust?”

A great place to start is by asking the people you already trust for recommendations. This is especially helpful if you have friends and family who live in the same area, and are in a similar financial situation.

“This firsthand referral increases the likelihood of receiving the level of service you’re looking for,” Pessin says.

You also can ask your lender for suggestions. Since the company’s money is on the line, your lender has a vested interest in your search for a proven professional.

Other places to find a real estate agent

There are many places to find a real estate agent, including:

  • Open houses. Open houses are opportunities to network with agents. If you see an open house in your area, you can pop in — even if you’re not looking for a home yet. 
  • Local chamber of commerce. Many local agents or brokers are part of a chamber of commerce, making it a good place to find an agent.
  • Real estate brokerage company. There are many large brokerage companies with locations across the country. You can visit one to find a real estate agent.
  • A real estate referral agent. If you’re moving somewhere new where you have few connections, a real estate referral agent can match you with an agent who specializes in the type of homes you’re looking for.
  • The National Association of Realtors. Again, NAR’s website has a directory you can use to find a Realtor.

5. Evaluate Your Options

It’s important to think about the traits and qualifications you want in a real estate agent. While there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for how to choose a real estate agent, key questions to ask include:

  • Does the real estate agent have a good track record?
  • How well do they know the market?
  • Do they have any special training, expertise, or certifications?
  • Do you trust them to represent your interests?
  • Are they passionate and honest?
  • Is the agent’s communication style and personality a good fit?
  • Will you be working mostly with the agent or their team?
  • How much do they get paid, and who pays them?
  • What are their contract terms?
  • Are there other costs or fees you need to pay?
  • Were their recent clients satisfied?

Watch for red flags

Here are some warning signs that suggest a real estate agent might be a poor fit:

  • They are inexperienced or have a low volume of clients. Agents who close only a handful of deals per year may lack the experience necessary to represent you effectively, Pessin says.
  • They seem too aggressive. You never want to feel pressured by your real estate agent to rush into a deal or buy a specific property.
  • They get a lot of bad reviews. Check online reviews and the Better Business Bureau for any complaints that unhappy clients may have filed against an agent. You can’t make every customer happy, so it’s not uncommon for a good real estate agent to receive a few bad reviews. But if you see a pattern that concerns you, it’s wise to pass.
  • They have a poor attitude. While your real estate agent should be realistic about what you can afford, you don’t want a someone who is overly negative. They should encourage you and make you feel confident about the homebuying process.

Check references from top prospects

It’s a good idea to ask serious candidates to provide a few references. Talking to an agent’s former clients will provide insights into their working style. It’s possible for an agent to be charming in the interview, and then you learn from previous clients that they’ve dropped the ball in the past.

6. Interview at Least 3 Real Estate Agents

Speaking directly with candidates will help you learn more about each agent’s experience, approach, and demeanor. Real estate agents are people, too, so you should be comfortable working with them.

Whether you’re buying or selling, Pessin says there are some general questions you should ask real estate agents.

“Questions should include basic items like whether they are full time or part time, years in the business, number of homes sold annually, and what percentage of their business is buyers vs. sellers,” he says. “Beyond these, you should ask more probing questions around the menu and level of services they provide customers.”

Questions to ask a real estate agent when you’re buying

  • How much experience do you have representing buyers?
  • Do you have any specialties?
  • What is your commission rate?
  • How will you help me find the right home within my budget?
  • How will you help me negotiate the best deal?
  • What am I up against in the current market?

Questions to ask a real estate agent when you’re selling

  • How much experience do you have representing sellers?
  • Do you have any specialties?
  • What is your commission rate?
  • How much do you think my home is worth?
  • How will you market my home?
  • Are there renovations and repairs that I should make before selling?

7. Choose the Right Agent

If you’re trying to figure out how to choose a Realtor or real estate agent, there are ways to make that choice clearer. Here are some good reasons to hire an agent.

You have a strong personal connection

When you decide on a home to buy, you’ll likely be listening to your gut. You should do the same when it comes to choosing a good real estate agent. You’ll be working with this person on a major investment, so chemistry matters. It’s important that you enjoy interacting with your agent so you’ll both take the time to iron out crucial details.

If a real estate agent seems like they’re phoning it in, and it feels like you’re just one of many clients they’re juggling, then they might be the wrong agent for you.

They have good market knowledge and experience

Both a thorough understanding of market conditions and experience negotiating home sales are essential qualities in a good real estate agent.

“Agents that consistently close a moderate to high number of transactions annually, have a high rate of happy customers, and receive repeat and referral business year in and year out, are proven experts at what they do,” Pessin says.

He suggests asking the agent to describe current market conditions. Also, you can ask questions about how many homes are on the market and whether property values are increasing or decreasing.

“The best way to evaluate market knowledge and experience is taking a look at an agent’s past sales and closings,” says Patricia Avella, director of residential sales and brokerage at AKAM Sales and Brokerage Inc. in New York City and Dania Beach, Florida.

It is also beneficial when the real estate agent has experience in the area where you’re looking to buy, Avella says.

“Yes, agents can work anywhere, but the best ones tend to work where they live,” she says. “They know the stories, the neighborhood, schools, stores, transportation, etc.”

They have relevant certifications

Real estate is a diverse field. There are many types of properties, including condos, townhouses, single-family homes, multifamily homes, brownstones, and more.

Many agents pursue certifications showing their expertise in different properties. You might look for a Realtor with a specific certification based on your needs, such as: 

  • Certified residential specialist. This certification from NAR is the highest credential awarded to agents and brokers. It indicates a decade or more of experience or a high volume of transactions.
  • Accredited buyer’s representative. This certification is for buyer’s agents. Certified agents have access to members-only resources and updates on current trends affecting homebuyers. 
  • Accredited seller’s representative. This is a premier credential for real estate practitioners who represent sellers.
  • Seniors real estate specialist. Realtors with this certification have specific training, resources, databases, and scripts to assist older adults looking to purchase a home.

Their license is up to date

Real estate agents need to get licensed by the state government and typically must complete ongoing education requirements to retain that licensure. Before hiring an agent, make sure their license is up to date. Most states will have a department you can contact or a website that allows you to look up real estate licenses to confirm an agent is legitimate.

8. Make the Deal Official

Once you’ve decided on an agent, you’ll need to follow some important steps to officially hire them.

Review and sign the paperwork

Part of your real estate agent’s job is to make sure you understand every document before you sign it. Contracts can be long and contain legal jargon that you might be unfamiliar with, but don’t be intimidated. Ask your real estate agent to walk you through anything you don’t understand. Someone who is unable or unwilling to explain things clearly to you is not a good match.

The agency disclosure

The agency disclosure clearly states what role your agent is playing in the real estate transaction. It indicates whether the agent is working on the behalf of the buyer or the seller.

“Sometimes there are dual-agency situations, where the same agent is used on both sides of the transaction — all of these relationships would be clearly defined in an agency disclosure,” Avella says.

First-time homebuyers are better off having their own agent, she says. A real estate agent who represents both sides may have more incentive to protect the seller’s interests. After all, the agent’s commission increases if they can sell the home at a higher price.

The buyer-broker agreement

This is the part where you make it official. The buyer-broker agreement is a contract between the buyer and their real estate agent’s boss, aka the broker. It authorizes the agent to work on the buyer’s behalf during the home purchase and outlines the services they’ll provide, which in turn ensures that the agent will get paid.

The buyer-broker agreement often involves exclusivity, which means that you can’t work with other agents. Pessin says this benefits both parties.

“By agreeing to work with one agent exclusively, you are ensuring that agent is completely dedicated to you and your needs,” he says. “If an agent knows that you are working with other agents as well, they aren’t likely to give you as much of their time, energy, or effort, as they know there is a high likelihood that you may do business without them.”

Not all buyer-broker agreements are the same, so pay attention to the specifics. Pessin recommends checking the start and end dates of the contract to confirm they match what you’ve discussed. He also suggests clarifying what happens if you change your plans and need to terminate the contract.

FAQ: How To Find a Real Estate Agent

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about finding a real estate agent. 

Is the real estate agent commission negotiable?

Yes, real estate agent commissions are negotiable. You can try to discuss their commission when working with an agent, but many may not be willing to take less than their standard rate.

Can I buy a home without a real estate agent or Realtor?

Yes, it’s possible to buy a home without a Realtor or an agent, but it’s typically more difficult. You should only consider it under certain circumstances, like if you have extensive real estate experience.

Can I work with multiple agents, or a team of agents?

Whether you can work with multiple agents depends on the details of your buyer-broker agreement. If you have an exclusive agreement, then you can only work with that one agent. If you work with another agent, then you’ll owe the first one compensation, too. If you have a nonexclusive agreement, then you’re free to work with multiple agents.

The Bottom Line on Choosing a Real Estate Agent

There are a lot of great real estate agents out there, but some are better equipped to land you the right home in the right place for the right price. When you’re choosing an agent, cast a wide net by researching online and asking for referrals from trusted sources. Narrow down your choices by conducting interviews and evaluating each agent’s experience, market knowledge, and working style. Once you find someone you feel comfortable with, you’ll team up to either make your homebuying dreams a reality or sell your home for a good price.

T.J. Porter contributed to the reporting of this article.