How to Find a Real Estate Agent

Devon Thorsby

When it comes to the proper care of your home, hiring a professional to help with plumbing, electrical or basic maintenance needs can mean the difference between a successful job and a mistake that can cost you thousands.

It's no different in the case of buying or selling your home. The necessary steps in the real estate process change over the years, so you might as well have someone on your side who's well-versed in the nuances and can help ensure you get the best possible deal.

You always have the option to purchase a home without an agent's help or put your house on the market as for sale by owner. But if you're not familiar with the buying or selling process, you may skip over necessary steps, whether it's failing to fix peeling paint or missing a deadline for due diligence when you're under contract, that require you to go back and take more time. You could also find that you're not on an even playing field when it comes to negotiating the deal, leading you to ultimately pay more for the purchase or make less money in a sale.

But not every agent is going to be the right fit for you. Here's what you need to know about searching for top real estate agents, interviewing potential candidates and understanding what services you can expect as you work toward a successful transaction.

The process of finding the right real estate agent includes:

-- Reaching out early in the process if you need more guidance.

-- Asking friends, family and neighbors for recommendations.

-- Checking out reviews online and writing down names from signs in your neighborhood.

-- Interviewing multiple agents to find the right one.

-- Discussing expectations for communication and time management.

-- As the seller, talking commission and additional cost expectations.

[Read: 9 Red Flags to Watch for When Picking a Real Estate Agent.]

When Should You Start Your Real Estate Agent Search?

A real estate agent can serve as your guide from start to finish during the home purchase or sale process, so don't be afraid to start reaching out to potential agents even though you're still not quite ready to put your house on the market or haven't figured out which lender is best for you.

For first-time homebuyers, a real estate agent can often help you assess the different mortgage programs. You can use her as a knowledgeable sounding board to talk through your financial concerns and needs before you apply for preapproval for a loan. Your agent can then use this in-depth knowledge to narrow the search for best-fit homes within your budget and other details as you move toward homeownership.

For sellers, bringing an agent into the fold sooner rather than later eliminates the possibility of unnecessary steps in prepping a house for the market. During initial interviews, your agent will likely tour your house and tell you which updates, repairs and renovations will help you get top dollar for the property.

With the right repairs completed, a serious conversation about what your home is truly worth will help you avoid overpricing the property, which can leave it sitting on the market for too long. "Everyone always thinks their house is probably worth more than it is," says Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats, a real estate brokerage in New York City. You need an agent who's willing to have that honest conversation from the start to help ensure a successful sale.

How Do You Find the Right Agent?

Knowing you need an agent is a great start, but now you have to find the right one for you. "People think that all agents are equal, and I think that there's different levels of services provided by agents, and of course, commissions can vary," says Barb Pepoon, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Northbrook, Illinois.

Here are the basics you'll need to start your search, filter through your options and find the best real estate professional to fit your needs.

Agent, Realtor or broker? A real estate agent by any other name is still an agent, whether you more often hear Realtor, broker or licensed real estate salesperson. The differences are in affiliation or certification level.

Here's the basic breakdown:

-- Real estate agent. An agent is anyone who holds a license to practice real estate issued by his or her state.

-- Licensed real estate salesperson. This requires the same certification as a real estate agent. The "licensed salesperson" title is more common in some parts of the U.S. -- most notably the New York City area.

-- Realtor. Only members of the National Association of Realtors can call themselves a Realtor. As of June 2018, there were more than 1.3 million members of the trade association, so you'll like come across more than a few Realtors in your search.

-- Broker. To achieve broker status, a real estate agent is required to have a certain amount of extra education and hours of experience, depending on the state. Brokers also typically earn additional certification to be able to take on the title.

Whether you're buying or selling, you may want to find a real estate agent who works exclusively with clients on that side of the transaction -- an exclusive buyer's agent, for example. Other times, you may find that an agent works on a team, which allows individuals to specialize in either sales or purchases while still remaining united to help give you full service. A team may also employ unlicensed pros to help with marketing, showing the house and more.

In nontraditional real estate brokerage companies like Redfin or Purplebricks, you're still dealing with licensed agents in the transaction, though there will likely be nonagents working with you as well to handle tasks like scheduling, marketing and more.

Where to look. Begin your search by asking friends, family members or neighbors who they've used as an agent and if they would recommend him or her. Morales says as much as 67 percent of the business at her firm has come from referrals of past clients.

Even if you get a glowing review from a friend, talk with a few different agents before you decide on one. "Listen to your friends, but don't just pick one agent," Pepoon says. "You need to compare them and their services -- and their marketing."

You can also look online -- many local magazines or real estate associations compile annual lists of top agents in the area, which can be a good start. Or get names by driving around your neighborhood and seeing which agents show up repeatedly on for sale signs.

If you use a nontraditional brokerage like Redfin or Purplebricks, a British brokerage that launched its U.S. arm in California in 2017, you'll be put in touch with someone once you've contacted the company, but you can still set up interviews to ensure the person you'll primarily be working with is a good fit.

Shay Stein, a Redfin agent in Las Vegas, says she sees this type of diligence most often from military members and their families because they move more than the average individual and have been through the process before. "They do want to interview several agents," she says.

An online search or inquiry with a brokerage can also help you narrow down your search to your specific needs, like a military relocation specialist, listing agent who focuses on helping seniors downsize or bilingual agent.

Call to set up an interview with each of your potential agents, and keep in mind that the vetting process can start even before you've sat down. "Right off the bat, if you call an agent and they don't call you back in the next couple hours, you want someone who's going to be responsive," Pepoon says.

Follow up the initial meeting by checking references and reviews on sites like Zillow or realtor.com. Don't be afraid to dig deep to explore the agent's experience, credentials and history in terms of recent sales, news coverage and potential problems that might rule them out for you.

Questions to ask an agent. Go into that initial meeting with your potential agent armed with questions that will help you gauge the person's experience, knowledge of your area and whether she'll be a good fit for you in terms of personality and communication.

Whether you're buying or selling, you want to feel confident your agent is going to advocate for you and work in your best interests. Stein says she's come across clients who aren't willing to share necessary personal and financial information with their agents because they fear the details will be used against them: "They're not going to tell [the agent] they're getting a divorce."

For a successful deal, Stein stresses you have to be willing to trust your real estate agent. If you are hesitant about doing so, maybe that agent isn't the right fit for you.

Here are some of questions you should ask a potential agent:

-- How long have you been a real estate agent? Especially if you're buying or selling for the first time, you want to know the level of experience and how much you can rely on your agent, Realtor or broker to guide you.

-- What's your average number of clients at one time? You want to know you'll be able to contact your agent when needed, and you don't want to be passed over for other clients. If the agent has a long client list, ask how they balance the load and if there are other team members who assist.

-- What area do you cover? An agent's experience is only helpful if he's familiar with the area you're buying or selling in. If your agent isn't familiar with the neighborhoods you're considering, find someone who is.

-- What type of communication do you prefer? You want to know how best to communicate with your agent for speedy responses. Many agents take advantage of texting to be able to verify details quickly and easily, but if you prefer phone calls or emails, find an agent who can accommodate.

You'll want to ask more questions that pertain to your unique situation and the agent's experience. See more advice on essential questions to ask a real estate agent.

[Read: What Your Real Estate Agent Can't Tell You.]

What Can You Expect From Your Agent?

Agent services vary based on the area you live in, price point, experience and availability of the agent and your ability to communicate your needs. While some agents simply help you get from point A to point B when finding and purchasing a house, others will attend inspections, tidy up your house for sale or even facilitate your entire move.

Here's what you can most likely expect from your agent before an offer is in:

Buyer's agent. First-time buyers can expect a lot of education on the process to help them understand each step along the way. Whether you have a lender or not, your agent will help you determine and understand the parameters of your budget and what that means relative to properties on the market. You'll likely be given homework to determine must-haves in a home as well as deal-breakers. Your agent will take you on house tours and offer guidance on the cost of repairs and maintenance. Your agent also assists with putting together your offer on a home, including price, conditions and other expectations. The agent will then contact the seller's agent to submit the offer and be in touch with you as negotiations take place. You make all final decisions regarding price and whether to accept a counteroffer, counter that or walk away.

Listing agent or seller's agent. Sellers can expect recommendations to prepare the house for the market, whether that means making updates that require a contractor or simply tidying up the place. A listing agent will also help provide information on what price the house is likely to sell for, based on recent sales of similar homes in the area. Once the house is officially for sale, the agent will market the property, typically through a number of online platforms, as well as by contacting other agents in his network. The listing agent will host open houses for your property and serve as the liaison between you and the buyer's side when an interested party wants to tour the home outside of an open house. A list agent will report purchase offers to you and can help you formulate a counteroffer. You make all final decisions regarding price and whether to accept an offer.

Once you go under contract, your agent will help you navigate the steps leading to the closing date, including meeting with the inspector, working with the title insurance company and answering questions from the lender to ensure you get to the closing table.

A key part of your success is your agent's ability to work with other agents and brokers in the area. If your agent has a reputation for being difficult, expect it to show during the tour and negotiation process. Ask the agent about his ability to work with other agents on the opposite side of a deal -- if he talks about winning or fighting with the other side rather than respect and professionalism to reach a successful deal, you might want to note a potential problem. "It's very important to cooperate with the whole broker community," Malin says. You don't want to lose out on a property because your agent has a hard time working with others.

How Much Will a Real Estate Agent Cost You?

In half of transactions, it may feel like you're getting an agent's services for free, while in the other half it could feel like you're forking over twice the amount.

How do real estate agents get paid? Agents are paid on commission, for the most part, which is typically between 5 and 6 percent of the agreed-upon sale price. In most parts of the U.S., the seller pays this amount after the buyer provides payment for the house. The commission is then split between the agents on either side of the transaction, and a portion of it also goes to their corresponding brokers or the individual or firm they work for.

Commission can be negotiated between the seller and listing agent when their professional relationship begins, though if you negotiate the listing agent's payment down to 2 percent, you may still need to pay 3 percent to the buyer's agent. A below-average commission rate for the buyer's side may have to be noted in the property information in the local multiple listing service, which can deter buyer agents from showing the property as an option to clients.

In a break with tradition, some brokerages opt to pay their agents a salary instead. As the largest nontraditional brokerage in the U.S., Redfin charges a listing fee of just 1 to 1.5 percent of the sale price, excluding the buyer agent's fees. Factoring in the buyer's agent, as the seller you pay 4 percent in total commission.

For buyers, a model like Redfin's can also be beneficial. Because the company pays its agent a salary, it kicks back a part of the buyer's fee to the buyer, which the company reports on its website is an average of $2,000.

[Read: How to Negotiate Real Estate Commissions When Selling Your Home.]

Other expenses. There are other costs associated with a real estate transaction that you may associate with your real estate agent, but keep in mind that you'll pay extra on both sides of the deal just to get things done.

For home sellers, Morales says some lenders charge an early payoff fee for completing payment on the loan before the total life of the loan is up (commonly 30 years). To avoid it popping up at an inconvenient time and causing a panic, Morales says she tries to "set that expectation before they ever sign the listing paperwork."

Also be prepared to cover the cost of professional photography or furniture rental for staging if you're selling, and to pay for the inspection, appraisal and title insurance if you're the buyer. Like Morales does proactively, ask an agent about the costs you can expect throughout the entire process to avoid surprise expenses when you buy or sell a home.