On the House: Finding, vetting an agent

Posted: October 07, 2012

Among the many good questions I received during a recent "Ask Al" online chat was one from a Center City resident hoping to sell a condo.

His query: "What questions should I ask a real estate agent when I'm choosing one to list my condo?"

Another chat participant asked me the best way to find a real estate agent. A third wondered how long before putting a house on the market he should contact an agent.

Let's start with the last question first.

If you haven't been in the market for a while, I'd recommend talking with a knowledgeable, seasoned real estate agent at least six months before you list your house for sale. The market changes constantly, buyers' behavior is not often predictable, and the salability and pricing of a property are always open to discussion.

In this market, coming off nearly six years of price declines, what you think your house is worth is likely not realistic. The agent will show you the current "comparables" - recent sale prices of houses similar to yours within a certain geographical area - to give you an idea of what you may be looking at.

Unless sales in your neighborhood are proceeding at a snail's pace, comparables will be out of date six months down the road. So the conversations you have with your agent when you finally decide to list your house will be the only ones that apply.

The best reason for meeting with an agent a few months before actually listing a property is to allow time to tackle some of the things that no doubt will need doing to get the house ready for the market.

Painting can be done in a weekend, if your real estate agent knows whom to hire, as mine did. Roofing, plumbing, and electrical work will likely take longer and be more expensive.

These days, buyers won't even take a second look at your house if it isn't in move-in condition, so make sure you have enough prep time.

On the second question: What's the best way to find a real estate agent? My immediate response is: Ask a neighbor, relative, or friend.

Someone once suggested that you ask the most difficult person you know the name of his or her real estate agent, and go with that one.

You might also go around your neighborhood and check out for-sale signs for suggestions. Then knock on the doors of those homes and ask about the agent.

If every house for sale in the neighborhood is using the same listing agent and you want a high level of individualized service, you might need to find someone else.

Finally, the third question: What should I ask the agent? Although the person in the chat was asking about a condo, the questions are pretty standard, no matter the property. In fact, since I began writing these columns the only one I've added is about online strategy, now crucial to an overall marketing plan.

Experience is key to sales. You have to start somewhere, but does it have to be my house? Experience can usually offer a guarantee of, if not success, then good service.

In olden days, when real estate was a sideline for a lot of people, full-time agents were preferable to part-timers. But today, after the downturn has driven many real estate agents into other fields, it's hardly an issue.

Of course, the agent should be able to show you his or her sales versus listings in the last 12 months, as well as how many of those sales were in your neighborhood, the number of days to a contract, and, most important, how close the final price was to the asking price.

Ask about a marketing plan: broker and public open houses, advertising, fliers.

Also, ask the agent's clients how responsive he or she is to e-mail and phone calls.

If it takes the prospective agent more than 24 hours to respond, move on to the next candidate.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @alheavens.

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