How to Choose Your Listing Agent

By Eric Tyson, Ray Brown

When you’re ready to get down to the nitty-gritty specifics of selecting your own agent, we recommend you interview at least three agents before selecting the lucky winner.

To help you find three good agents to interview, tap into the following referral sources:

  • Friends, business associates, and members of professional, social, and religious organizations to which you belong: In short, anyone you know who recently sold a house or is in the process of selling a house in your neighborhood is a source of agent referrals. Don’t just ask for names; find out why they liked the agent.
  • Your employer: The company you work for may have a relocation service that you can consult.
  • Professionals in related fields: Financial, tax, and legal advisors can be good sources of agent referrals.
  • Sunday open houses: Visit houses currently on the market in your neighborhood to check out the competition and to see how well the agents hosting the open houses handle the process. Here’s your chance to “audition” agents without their knowledge. Listen to the agent answer questions from prospective buyers. Observe the way people respond to the agent.

Seeing is believing. When you tour an open house, note whether the house makes a good impression on you. If not, drop the agent from further consideration as your listing agent.

Step 1: Showing off your house

After you identify at least three prospective agents, start the selection process by inviting these agents to tour your house — individually, of course — so each can prepare a comparable market analysis (CMA) for your property. The CMA establishes your house’s value by comparing it to other houses in your neighborhood that are approximately the same size, age, and condition as your house.

During that first meeting, tell each agent that you intend to interview several agents before selecting the one to work with to sell your house (the listing agent). Schedule second meetings with each agent a few days later to review their CMAs, their marketing plans for your property, and their activity lists.

Step 2: Conducting agent interviews

Begin each interview by analyzing the agent’s CMA, marketing proposal, and activity list. After you review the written material, get answers to the following questions:

  • Are you a full-time agent? You should’ve asked this question before inviting the agent to be interviewed. If you didn’t, do so now. Don’t work with part-time agents.
  • Whom do you represent? This question gets back to the fundamental concept of agency. Be sure you know whom your agent represents at all times.
  • What can you tell me about your office? Office size is a matter of personal preference. Some folks feel that they need the depth and scope of services a large office provides. Others think they’ll get more personal attention in a small office. No matter whether you prefer large or small offices, check on staff support, market specialization, and reputation. Determine whether the agent’s broker is knowledgeable, is available to you if necessary, and is a good problem solver. In a crunch, the success of your transaction may depend on the quality of backup support you and the agent receive.

Don’t select an agent based solely on the size of the agent’s office. Office size, or lack thereof, doesn’t affect how quickly property sells. Some excellent agents operate as sole practitioners; other excellent agents prefer the synergism and support services of a huge office. Although larger offices tend to have more listings, no one office ever has a monopoly on the good listings. Quality of service is more important than quantity of agents or listings.

  • How long have you been an agent? You want an agent who keeps learning and growing. After five years in real estate, a good agent has five years’ experience, whereas a mediocre agent has one year’s experience five times. Time in the saddle is one factor to consider when selecting an agent, but, by itself, it’s no guarantee of competence. Even with a time-tested agent, you still have to review activity lists and ask all the other questions.
  • Do you have a salesperson’s license or a broker’s license? An agent must satisfy rigorous educational and field sales experience requirements to get a broker’s license. Many fine agents have a salesperson’s license throughout their entire career. Although a broker’s license isn’t a guarantee of excellence, good agents often get a broker’s license to improve their professional skills and to give themselves an advantage in agent-selection situations.
  • Do you hold any professional designations? Have you recently taken any real estate classes? What do you read to keep current in your field? Taking continuing education courses and reading to stay informed about changes in real estate brokerage is a good characteristic in an agent. So is obtaining professional designations, such as the GRI (Graduate Realtor Institute) and CRS (Certified Residential Specialist) designations through the National Association of Realtors’ study programs. Credentials in and of themselves are no guarantee of competence or ethics, but they usually indicate that the agent has a desire for self-improvement.
  • What do you think of the other two agents (name them) whom I’m interviewing? To encourage frankness, assure the agents that you won’t repeat their comments. Good agents never build themselves up by tearing down other agents. If all three agents are good ones, you won’t hear derogatory comments about any of them. If, however, one of the agents (or the agent’s firm) has a bad reputation in the community, the other two agents’ silence will speak volumes.

Good or bad, the reputations of your agent and the agent’s office rub off on you.

  • How many other sellers and buyers do you currently represent? If, for example, the agent holds four listings open every weekend and is working with six buyers, where will you fit in? Don’t contort your life to fit the agent’s schedule. The agent who’s right for you has time to accommodate your schedule.
  • Do you work in partnership with another agent or use assistants? Sometimes an agent teams up with another agent to handle sellers and buyers jointly. In such cases, you must interview both agents. Other agents delegate time-consuming detail work to their assistants so they can focus on critical points in the transaction. If an agent relies on assistants, be sure you understand exactly how and when during the process the agent plans to work directly with you. You don’t want to hire an agent only to find that you end up working most of the time with an assistant whom you can’t stand.
  • Is there anything I haven’t asked about you or your firm that you think I should know? Perhaps the agent is planning to change firms or is leaving next week for an extended vacation. Maybe the agent’s broker is going out of business. Always ask this “make sure I find out everything I need to know to make a good decision” question.

Step 3: Checking the all-important agent references

By checking up on agent references, you can gain experience the easy way — by learning from other people’s mistakes. Be sure to get activity lists with names and phone numbers of every seller and buyer the agent represented during the past 12 months. With a complete activity list, you can pick and choose whomever you want to call, instead of permitting the agent to limit you to a highly selective list of references who are primed to tell anyone who calls that this agent is God’s gift to real estate.

What’s to prevent agents from culling their worst transactions from the activity list? Nothing. However, the more deals they delete, the less activity they have to show you — and the worse they look when you compare the agents’ overall sales activity.

Any agent who refuses to give you an activity list is trying to hide either a lack of sales or unhappy clients. Dump the agent.

Suppose each agent gives you a list containing 50 transactions. Assuming one seller or buyer for each transaction, 50 clients per agent times 3 agents interviewed equals 150 phone calls. No way. Your doctor would have to surgically remove the phone from your ear by the time you finished checking references.

Good news. You don’t have to call every client to check references — that is, unless you want to. You can get a pretty darn accurate picture of the agents you’re considering by making just six calls per agent. Here’s how:

  1. Because you’re a seller, ignore buyer references. That restriction probably cuts the list in half.
  2. Next, look for people who sold property comparable to yours in price, location, and property type. Because their property is like yours, their experiences also are likely to be similar to yours.
  3. Of these sellers, call two who sold a house about 12 months ago, two who sold approximately 6 months ago, and two whose sales just closed. By spreading references evenly over the past year, you can see whether the agent’s service has been consistently good.

After you identify which sellers to call, ask the following questions while you have them on the phone:

  • Is the agent trustworthy and honest? Did the agent follow through on promises? Your agent can’t be even slightly untrustworthy, dishonest, or unreliable. Consider a “no” answer to either of these questions to be the kiss of death.
  • Did the agent have enough time to properly serve you? Was the agent available to fit your schedule? An occasional scheduling conflict is okay. Frequent conflicts are absolutely, flat-out unacceptable.
  • Did the agent clearly and satisfactorily explain in sufficient detail everything that happened during the selling process? What one person thinks is ample detail may not be nearly enough for another. For example, some folks are content just to know what time it is. Others aren’t happy until they know exactly how to make a clock. You know which type you are; question agent references accordingly.
  • Did the agent set realistic contract deadlines and then meet or beat them? Time is of the essence is a condition of every real estate contract. Contract deadlines for obtaining financing, completing property inspections, and so forth are extremely important and must be met, or your sale will fall apart. A good agent makes sure you and the buyer meet all contract deadlines.
  • Do the words self-starter, committed, and motivated describe the agent? No one likes pushy people. But if you need to sell quickly, the last thing you want is a lethargic agent. You shouldn’t have to jab your agent periodically with an electric prod to make sure he’s still breathing. Find out how energetically your prospective agent is prepared to work for you.
  • Did the agent get a good sale price for your house? See whether the agent’s clients still think they did well on their sale.
  • Would you use the agent again? This question is the ultimate test of customer satisfaction. If someone answers “No,” find out why. The negative answer may be the result of a personality conflict between client and agent that won’t bother you. On the other hand, the negative answer may reveal a horrendous agent flaw that you haven’t yet uncovered.
  • Is there anything I haven’t asked you about the agent or the agent’s office that you think I should know? You never know what you may find out when you ask this open-ended question.

Step 4: Picking the best of the lot

By analyzing all three agents’ CMAs, marketing plans, and activity lists; interviewing the agents; and talking to their clients, you can gather facts that you need to make an intelligent decision. Here are three final considerations to help you select the paragon of virtue that you need on your real estate team:

  • Will you be proud having the agent represent you? People who deal with your agent will form opinions of you based on their impressions of your agent. You can’t afford to have anyone on your team who isn’t a competent professional.
  • Do you communicate well with the agent? Good agents make sure you completely understand everything they say. If you can’t understand your agent, don’t blame yourself; the agent is probably a poor communicator.
  • Do you enjoy the agent’s personality? Don’t kid yourself. House selling is stressful. You share extremely intense situations with your agent. Working with an agent you like may transform the selling process from a horrible experience into an exciting adventure — or, at least, a tolerable transaction.