In spite of the �how to� books and articles stressing ways to interview and employ a real estate agent, most people hire one by the luck of the draw. The person who answers the phone or is seated behind the desk when a customer makes initial contact is the agent who gets the job. Other scientific selection methods are based on a postcard announcing a neighbor�s new real estate license or a call from Aunt Jill (the one with the talent for guilt trips) about her best friend who is in the business.

Does it matter who your agent is? Must he or she have a long and lucrative track record? Should you insist on a dragon lady or a scarily aggressive Alpha Male? Is it really necessary that your agent be available and willing to show a house at your whim, even on Christmas Eve?

What should you consider when selecting an agent?

It depends.

That�s not a cop out. It really does depend on a lot of things, and most of all, it depends on you.

Forget those alphabetic designations (GRI, CRI, each is more reflective of the ability to tolerate a hard chair than any real expertise) or the total sales achieved last year. Who you are as a person and a consumer, and what you know or don�t know about real estate are the keys to picking the right agent. Therefore, the most important interview is one you should conduct with yourself before you start questioning prospective agents.

  1. Is this your first venture into real estate?

    If you are a veteran, you don�t need an expert agent. It is better to choose a hard worker who will facilitate the transaction rather than one who will try to educate you or boss you around. In fact, if you have strong opinions about the process, you may find yourself opposing suggestions and demands from a real pro. Prolific agents tend to be strong willed and formula driven. They always do it that way, in fact insist on doing it that way, whatever that way may be. If you are similarly insistent on your way, there will be problems.

    On the other hand, if you know little about the process, you should not hire a rookie. While some managers keep a close eye on the newly hatched and even assign a seasoned mentor to coach agents through their first few deals, this is not the case in every office and somebody should know what they are doing.

  2. Will you be a high maintenance customer?

    Do you want to hear from your agent every day? Do you want feedback on every showing or to hear immediately about each new listing even if it is out of your price range or without the features you desire? Are you so afraid of losing out that you will literally expect an agent to leave guests at the Thanksgiving table to show you a home?

    If so, a top producer may not be the best choice. The real heavy hitters are, at any given time, juggling dozens of listings and at least that many buyers. Calls may not be returned for days and you might have to remind the agent who you are and what you are looking for when you do talk. An agent who has many customers will be a lot less patient with your demands than one who is focused on only a few.

    Many top producers employ an assistant, or even several assistants. You may be assigned to a helper and have little or no contact with �your� agent. If you are selling your house you will have the star�s name on the yard sign, for whatever that is worth, but if you are a buyer there is little advantage to working with a top producer if you must do so through a layer of underlings. The whole arrangement can really break down if assistants have no authority vested in their role. Example: a very attractive condo development was being handled by a top agent with three assistants. He absolutely never returned phone calls. His harried assistants did their best, but had not authority to answer questions or schedule showings. Participating in marketing this development was an exercise in futility, and most cooperating agents stopped trying. The agent was featured in Realtor magazine as a top producer (his own marketing ploy) and the condo developer never knew why his project failed.

  3. How much input into the process do you want?

    If you want to sign off on each ad, pick snacks for the agents� open house, and weigh in on every marketing decision, you probably want a less experienced agent. Top producers do not have, nor will they make the time to consult you on day-to-day decisions. They need to get the ad in the paper, place the catering order and get on to the next listing.

    If you expect to be consulted on every aspect of the sale, you may want to pick a new or less busy agent, one who has the time to listen to a customer�s ideas and maybe have a dozen ideas of his own he is eager to try. Remember, enthusiasm can equal a ton of experience.

  4. Do you want a personal connection to your agent?

    You will be spending a lot of time with the agent you hire to find or sell your home. If you can put up with someone who has a speech pattern that drives you crazy (�like, you know�) as long as they do the deal; if you don�t mind spending hours in a car with a person who is basically nasty and unpleasant or one who drives like a maniac, then pick your representative solely on the basis of production and experience. If, however, you want house buying or selling to be enjoyable, the agent�s personality, congeniality, and approach to people should be a factor in the hiring decision.

    I know a top agent in an expensive town who was unpleasant to a remarkable degree. Customers flocked to her, however, because she had a reputation as �one tough broad.� What they did not know was that other agents, even those in her own office, hated dealing with her to such an extent that they did not return her calls and avoided showing her listings. Then her daughter got her license and proved that apples don�t fall far from the tree. All things being equal, the pair�s listings took longer to sell and their customers� offers were often rejected in the face of similar ones because agents did not want to deal with the inevitable difficulties and general nastiness. Their listings still sold, their customers still bought, but it all took a little longer and I doubt that anyone enjoyed the experience.

Now that you have interviewed yourself, here are the right questions to ask prospective agents.

For the new or non stellar agent:

  • How long have you been in the real estate business? How many transactions have you completed?
  • (If less than one year or two transactions on each side of the table) Is it possible for me to speak to the office manager about resources that are available to both of us to make sure this transaction runs smoothly?

    Follow up, speak to the manager and assure yourself that you and the new agent will not be left twisting in the wind. If the manager is willing to supervise the transaction, you will have two agents for the price of one. Not a bad deal, especially since one of them is determined to prove she can be a top agent.
  • Is there a marketing idea that you have been dying to try? How would you apply it to my house?
  • Why should I put myself in the hands of someone who has minimal experience? What can you possibly offer me that a veteran agent can not?
  • How much time do you spend each week working on real estate? (Avoid the part-timer no matter how experienced.)
  • What hours are you available to actually take and return my calls? (I would personally avoid the agent who is available 24/7. She may be too hungry and places no real value on the rest of her life.)

For the top producer:

  • What procedures do you always follow in marketing a home or finding one for a client? The right answer? �Every purchase and every sale is different and I try to treat each accordingly.�
  • Do you have an assistant or assistants? What role will they play in selling my home or finding me a home? Who will I be interacting with more frequently, you or your assistant? Is this person empowered to answer buyer questions? Write up my offer? Make marketing decisions?
  • If I must deal primarily with your assistant(s), why should I use you as my agent instead of picking someone who will be more directly available to me?
  • If you have two customers looking for what is essentially the same house, how will you determine which of us you will call or show the house to first?

This discussion is not meant to suggest that one must choose between a top producer and a rank amateur, nor is it meant to disparage the high producing agent. Many of the former are eager, hardworking, and enthusiastic; most of the latter consider every customer a priority and balance their work load with grace and fairness.

And there is, of course, a middle ground. Most real estate agents have put years into the business without becoming superstars. They are capable, knowledgeable, and hardworking but not earning corporate club memberships or other incentives.

There are many reasons that some agents rise to the top and others maintain a reasonable but not spectacular level of business. Top producers often have an incredible referral network. This may be by virtue of a relative in a position to feed them business or because of long standing memberships or volunteer activities. Some of the most successful agents are young women with kids enrolled in every activity in town. Mom does more at PTA meetings and soccer games than serve coffee and cheer on her kids. Others have been in the business so long that they are dealing with customers for the fourth or fifth time or working with their original customers� kids and grandkids. Some of the very worst agents have the best book of business. They are charming, talk a good game, belong to the right clubs, and do little to represent their customer�s interests. Even the terminally lazy can be very, very successful.

The bottom line? You don�t have to have a top name on the listing sheet to sell your home but that cute young agent may not be the best choice to guide your search for a home. You need to know what you want from an agent and keep an open mind when making the fit. The ink might not be dry on a rookie�s license, but if she is willing to work her heart out to achieve the best result for you, that may be all you need.