Choosing a Buyer's Broker

Home sellers enlist the help of professionals to represent their interests, so why shouldn't home buyers do the same?

If you're a novice when it comes to home-buying, the last thing you want to do is walk into an open house by yourself and start blabbing how much you can afford to the agent who has listed the house. That agent owes his or her allegiance to the seller -- and only the seller. If you're negotiating with a pro, you ought to have a pro in your corner, too.

Nail down how the buyer's broker expects to be paid. Most are still paid out of the seller's commission, but would you owe a commission if you buy a home being sold without an agent, or if you find a home on your own? A good buyer's broker will show you for-sale-by-owner homes as well as broker-listed homes, but you could end up paying the 3% or so commission out of pocket, or agreeing to a higher price so you can roll the fee into your mortgage.

Some buyer's brokers may ask for a retainer (perhaps $500 up front), which may be returned to you when (or if) you buy. But the idea has understandably been slow to catch on with buyers.

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If you're also selling a house, consider using two agents. Most agents will assure you that they can sell your home at the same time they're helping you find a new one. It certainly is easier to communicate with only one person. (And you might have more luck negotiating a lower commission from an agent who's getting all your business.) But while a seller may be happy listing with the local superstar who sells 'em as fast as she can list 'em, that same agent might frustrate a picky buyer.

Two agents could be well worth the extra hassle if you sell fast with the agent who lists most of the houses in your old neighborhood, and then are led to gems that are well-known to your buyer's agent ten miles across town.

How to Pick an Agent

Check the classifieds or seek referrals for brokers and agents in the area where you want to buy.

Run the names by the local real estate board or state real estate commission and check for complaints.

Call two or three recommended brokerage firms. Talk to the managing brokers and tell them:

1. What kind of buyer you are (first-timer or experienced home owner).

2. The kind of house you're looking for.

3. The general price range you are working with.

4. Ask for the names of two agents she thinks could best meet your needs.

Interview the agents. Ask questions about:

1. Their firms, and other firms where they've worked.

2. How long have they been selling real estate?

3. What types of clients -- first-time buyers, working families, multimillionaires -- do they typically work with? What price ranges? Neighborhoods?

4. How many active clients are they currently working with (too many could mean they may not have time for you; too few could also be a warning sign)?

5. Ask yourself if you would enjoy working with this person. You may be spending a lot of time together. Do they listen and pay attention to your concerns?

Select one or two finalists. If you conducted phone interviews initially, arrange to meet each of them face to face in their offices. If you conducted interviews in person, have follow-up phone conversations. Be candid about the degree of service you're expecting and whether you'll be looking at houses with other agents.