Is there anyway you can find better real-estate agents to represent you as a first-time home buyer? What services can you expect the agent to exercise on your behalf as a buyer, to be called a 'good' agent.
I live in TX, which does not require an agent for the buyer - is it a good idea to 'wing it' or have a friend/relative represent you and split the commission?
In answer to your second question, I always advise buyers to obtain buyers' agents. The seller pays the same, whether there are two (listing and buyers') agents or not. Buying a home without an agent (which means the listing agent is acting in a dual capacity, representing both buyer and seller) is akin to asking the prosecuting attorney to represent you while you're on trial, not a great idea. As far as finding a great buyers' agent, best course of action is to ask friends and family (and lender if you've already picked one) for references and interview several. Buyers' agents help you find appropriate properties, evaluate their values versus asking prices, negotiate the sales contract, and represent you throughout the purchase process. You could certainly have a "friend/family member" who is a licensed agent represent you, but if you expect them to "split the commission", think you'll have an issue. Agents can forego some commission to help pay closing costs, but expecting one (especially a good one!) to work for a reduced price is not necessarily going to be a popular idea with the agents. Hope that helps!
As to finding a good real estate agent, I would recommend getting the names and numbers of their last 5 clients and giving them a call. If the past clients were satisfied with his/her effort, then you probably will too. Referrals are a great way to find a good agent.
Another item to check on is to see how long it takes them to sell their properties. Start with a generic question such as, "What is the average time on the market for a house in my price range? In the last year, how many homes in this price range have you sold? Would you be willing to print out the sales information for me to take a look at? (These would be mostly likely used as comps anyway so there shouldn't be a problem.)
From there you can take them home and find out how long these homes were on the market and compare their marketing time with the average. If they sell homes faster than the average, you may have found an aggressive Realtor that fights on your behalf.