Buying or selling a home can be one of the biggest financial transactions of your life. Some agents are amazing, and some are stinkers. How do you find the right one for you?
I’m going to share some personal stories with you about our experiences with Realtors over some of our 14 transactions to date. We’ve had one from heaven, one from hell, and a whole bunch in between. By the end, I hope you’ll learn better how to recognize the good from the bad, gain the confidence you need to hire a great Realtor, minimize the stress, and actually enjoy the experience.
First, who are Realtors and real estate agents and what do they do?
The name “Realtor” is a trademark of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) in the United States that refers to agents who are members of this organization. You can still work with many good agents who are not members of NAR.
All real estate agents or Realtors are licensed by the state where they do business. There are approximately 1.5 million Realtors and 500,000 agents nationwide today. Many are full-time, some are part-time, and others are dormant, working only occasionally with friends, family, or for their own investment transactions. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to agents and Realtors interchangeably.
What do Realtors do, and are they really necessary to help buy/sell homes?
There’s a lot of money at stake, and it’s helpful to work with someone knowledgeable about the laws, rules, and market conditions, with practical experience.
Good Realtors can save you not only time and frustration, but they can save or make you thousands of extra dollars.
In the US, you don’t typically pay Realtors directly out-of-pocket as a buyer. They earn a commission when they close a deal, traditionally paid from the seller’s side of the transaction. Today’s commissions generally range from 2 to 6%, sometimes more for specialty properties.
Diane and I were newlyweds back in 1990 renting in Silicon Valley for about two years before we decided to buy a home in 1991.
We visited open house after open house and met numerous Realtors over the next year. We narrowed our search to a few suburbs, including Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Santa Clara. Palo Alto would have been a great investment, but it was one of the priciest towns to buy real estate even back then.
We worked with several decent to mediocre Realtors starting out, names changed to protect the marginal:
The first was Janet. We met her at an open house in Sunnyvale. She was salivating for the business, she gave off a weird vibe, and she was kind of pushy. It was easy to tell after just a few outings with her that she was hungry for money and didn’t care what we bought. She always asked if we wanted to make an offer on every house we saw with her.
The second was Debbie. She was the niece of a friend, who showed us condos in Palo Alto one day. After seeing three places, she pretty much said to “call her back when we’re serious.” It came off quite rude, given that we thought we were pretty serious, if maybe uncertain about the exact area we wanted to live.
The third was Stacey. We met her at another open house in Sunnyvale, saw a lot of properties with her, found one we liked, and she helped us make an offer on a house in a multiple bidding situation that we lost. Oddly, she disappeared after that! Was she too busy?
So we had some initial bad luck with these Realtors over nine months.
But it wasn’t a complete waste of time. It was helpful to get to know the market and learn what we liked and disliked in a home, as well as a Realtor.
One day we went into another open house in Saratoga that we seriously wanted to make an offer on, but it had some issues. Unable to get a hold of Stacey, the agent who had helped us make the prior offer, and after hearing about our frustration, my mom called a local real estate office and randomly found our gem, Judy Tucker.
She was an angel, heaven-sent, a Realtor’s Realtor. After discussing the issues with the Saratoga house with Judy, we opted not to make an offer and soon after bought a house in Sunnyvale, with her help, that turned out to be a better deal, a better fit for our lifestyle, and free of major issues.
A few years later, when we decided to move up to a larger home in Cupertino, we instantly hired Judy.
On the sell-side, she coached us on how to get the house staged, ready, and what to expect.
On the buy-side, she helped us win against another bidder. We, along with the other buyers, were bidding up to our last pennies, and we could not quite come up with the cash difference required by the seller, so Judy threw in a bit of her own commission to get the deal done! That simply blew us away. She was a true partner in getting our deal done.
Seven years later, we sold our Cupertino house, and as usual, Judy was invaluable, guiding us once more on how to prep the house for buyers and navigating through a difficult, sudden downturn in the market.
She brought incredible savvy to the negotiation, helping us close the deal with a difficult buyer of a certain culture, who she knew would likely, after being agreeable throughout the transaction, come back right before close and try to beat us down on price for numerous repairs and fixes, etc. To nip this in the bud, Judy advised us to make the purchase agreement “as is”.
It worked. The buyer tried and failed, and we never would have known to expect this without her.
Judy did well financially, earning four commissions with us buying and selling two homes, and she deserved every penny. We wish we could have engaged her for all of our future transactions, but we left the area and couldn’t take her with us.
What Makes a Rockstar Realtor?
- Proactive. Judy jumped on opportunities and had a sincere desire for us to win. She gave us homework and brought lots of energy to the table.
- Strategic. Judy knew the market cold, how to get the best deal, and how to avoid problems.
- Communicative. Judy always kept us informed, never kept us guessing, coached us through the entire process.
- High integrity. Judy wasn’t afraid to share the good, the bad, and the ugly with us. She was not a yes-man, always honest with her opinions. She never pushed us, respected our decisions. She was fun to work with and very supportive.
- Professional network. She had a full cadre of excellent handymen, inspectors, lenders, peers, helpers, title and escrow officers.
Once we sold our Cupertino home, we turned our focus to Truckee, where we wanted to move.
Judy helpfully referred us to a top agent in the Truckee market, who I’ll call Sally. She knew the market cold, but we ended up clicking better with her younger assistant agent, Denise, and spent more time with her.
We originally wanted to roll profits from our expensive Silicon Valley home into a Truckee dream house, but after not finding anything we liked for the money, we ended up buying a small temporary house and bought land with the intent to build.
Sally had been in the business for over 20 years, which she constantly reminded us of to reaffirm her qualifications.
We quickly discovered that she was pretty set in her ways. Denise seemed much more open-minded and helpful.
When we wanted to make an offer on a home for less than the asking price, Sally resisted. The home was in her neighborhood, where values generally held, but our internet research suggested the seller might be open to dealing, and he was.
She was genuinely surprised that he came down in price. It seemed like she was a big fish in a tiny pond who didn’t want to see neighborhood values fall. That was my impression anyway. We got through the transaction, but her resistance to our making a lower offer (that ended up saving us $44,000) left a bad taste in my mouth.
The truth is, every agent is on trial all the time. If you’re not getting a good vibe, try someone else on the team, try someone else from the same brokerage, or try another Realtor entirely. Years of experience don’t guarantee great service.
When it came time to sell our Truckee home, we went with a new agent, Lil, who we had come to know socially. She was super savvy, a lot like Judy, but lower-key. We sold that house in 4 days.
A couple of years later, we fell in love with the Village at Mammoth when it was under construction and decided to buy our first second home there, a condo.
We liked the sales agent, who was very helpful, so we worked with her again a few years later when we sold it at a good profit. She was straightforward, competent, and professional, keeping us reasonably informed without drama.
Look for low-drama agents who stay neutral and communicate in a timely fashion. High-drama agents who always blame others can be difficult.
In 2004 we discovered a brand-new development on a golf course in NW Reno called Somersett. We asked a lot of questions, read the contracts carefully, and bought directly from the developer without a hitch.
While the home was being built, we bought a temporary house in Reno nearby. This time, we worked with our contractor’s wife as our agent.
She was proactive, kept us informed, and was willing to show us anything, a high-volume agent who had a solid work ethic—all the qualities you want in a Realtor.
Most importantly, she managed to find us an in-office listing in a very competitive market. These are insider listings that come up and aren’t yet entered in the MLS for the public to see. You absolutely want agents with these kinds of intel opportunities.
A year and a half later, we sold that house to a colleague, with Diane as a new Realtor representing our side, which went well.
After living in the new house for several years, we, unfortunately, had to short-sell it after the 2008 crash. This was a tough one, but our next Realtor was a trusted colleague and friend who was patient, diligent, honest, communicative and got it done for us.
Okay, so far these have been good to great Realtors, but what about the Realtor from Hell?
In 2014 we were at a point in life where we wanted to live overseas and decided to move to Puerto Rico. This is when we encountered the Realtor from Hell.
At the time, Diane was still a Realtor and worked for a well-known international luxury brokerage in Lake Tahoe with an office in San Juan. We contacted them and ended up working with a pleasant, fairly new agent in their office. After several showings, we found a fantastic townhome in Dorado with other buyers interested as well.
After thinking about it for a day, we called our agent and left a voicemail saying that we wanted to write an offer—but she didn’t call back!
We called again but could not get a hold of her, which was really odd. What agent doesn’t want to make a deal?
So I called the listing agent to let her know that we wanted to make an offer and that we were trying to reach our agent to write it up. The listing agent tried to contact our agent, but she couldn’t reach her either.
The listing agent then called the managing broker of the luxury firm to find out what was up. The managing broker informed the broker-owner, who turned out to be a real piece of work.
This dragon lady immediately called Diane and proceeded to chew her out for letting me “get out of control” by calling the listing agent directly—treating Diane like some wayward housekeeper who had just dropped her favorite, expensive vase on the floor.
Diane was stunned speechless and told the dragon lady that she should talk to me.
It’s still kind of a man’s world in Latin America, Puerto Rico’s cultural roots. This woman was buttery sweet to me over the phone, unlike with Diane, and told me that she’d take care of us and that we were going to get the “white glove treatment.” I would expect so just as a normal client, but especially given that Diane worked for the same international brokerage.
20 minutes later, Dragon Lady calls back and says she can’t work with us, tells us we’re on our own, no further explanation. We were floored and furious. I’m guessing it’s because our budget was less than $500K.
It’s too bad because the agent who helped us spent a lot of time and effort setting up appointments, showing us around, and would have made a nice commission from the deal.
We ended up representing ourselves with the help of an attorney and bought the house.
Most agents are good, some aren’t, and some are downright crazy. We’ve learned over the years not to engage crazy. This was by far our worst experience buying a home. Bar none.
This brokerage came highly recommended, so how it all turned out was a complete surprise, but sometimes that happens. Just resolve things as quickly and cleanly as possible and move on.
How do you find good agents?
Like many things, when you start looking for them, they tend to pop up everywhere. Most agents are anxious to be found.
- Asking friends and family. This can work if they know you well and make introductions to good professionals they’ve actually worked with, but it’s not a guarantee. Preferably you want someone who has experience in your price range, in the area where you’re looking, with a compatible personality.
- Google, Zillow, Realtor.com, and agent websites. Agents themselves may have nice websites, paid ads, testimonials, but you need to call them, discuss the market, and judge for yourself. This is time-consuming.
- Agent reviews. Reviews can work, but they’re not 100% reliable. Agents get busy, they have assistants, they build up teams, you may like their assistants better, or you may not, or agents get busy, or tired. There’s a certain amount of trial, error, and chemistry going this route.
- Agent matching services. These are sites that search databases and return suggestions for you to interview. This can work, but suggestions are not personal, they are data-driven, and you still have to set up calls, interview, judge, and decide for yourself. Personal introductions, however, can work well.
Where to live is a very personal, sometimes complicated choice, and there’s no one right answer for everyone.