Beware the slick, fast-talking agent find a listener

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Know that glib, know-it-all real estate agent? He's not the one for you, if you're buying a home.

"You don't want one of those bums who talks too fast, listens too little and is just a little too slick for comfort," cautions Dorcas Helfant, past president of the National Association of Realtors.

Buying a home -- especially a first home -- can be a terrifying experience. The last thing you need is someone who is condescending, unresponsive to your questions or impatient during your house hunt.

"Finding a good agent is like buying a pair of shoes. It's got to feel good and wear well," Ms. Helfant says.

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Ms. Helfant and other realty experts offer buyers 10 suggestions on finding the right "showing agent," the one who helps you locate a right property:

* No. 1: Look for someone with whom you are totally comfortable.

"You're going to be with the agent for some time, so there has to be a chemistry there," says Alex Karavasilis, broker-owner of RE/MAX Advantage, a Columbia realty firm.

Just because an agent comes highly recommended from someone you trust doesn't mean he's right for you. "Maybe he's too pushy or too lax for you," Mr. Karavasilis says. Among highly qualified agents, some will match your style and others won't, he says.

* No. 2: Look for a good listener who asks plenty of questions.

"Don't get offended if the agent asks you a lot about yourself," Ms. Helfant says. To help you fully, an agent needs to garner information about you. He needs to know your housing requirements and tastes.

And he needs to know your buying capacity (though you can also ascertain your mortgage borrowing capacity through a mortgage lender and then simply forward the information to the agent).

"If the agent doesn't ask you a lot of questions, that's when you've got a problem," Ms. Helfant says.

But buyer beware: Most showing agents work within a traditional system that makes them legally required to represent the interests of the seller, not the buyer, in any transaction. They may be friendly and helpful in showing you property. But in

negotiations over the price of a home, for example, the traditional agent must pass on to the seller financial information given him by the buyer. This can weaken the buyer's bargaining stance, consumer advocates point out.

In working with a traditional agent, it's not wise for the buyer to give away too much financial information. All the agent needs to know is that you could, indeed, qualify to buy the sort of property you're seeking. And in the prequalification process, a lender could certify this for you.

* No. 3: Ask friends and associates for the names of showing agents they like.

When you take a referral, ask whether the showing agent they used proved tenacious during a house hunt. It's one thing to be good-natured the first afternoon you look at property and another to be equally nice after a house hunt has gone on for a while.

* No. 4: Seek names of prospective agents from the sales managers of realty offices.

Tell the manager who you phone what traits you are looking for in an agent and then allow the manager to make recommendations. "I would interview three or four agents before I made my selection," Mr. Karavasilis counsels.

* No. 5: Notice how quickly the agent calls you back after your first contact.

Same-day call backs should be the rule in the real estate industry, Ms. Helfant says.

* No. 6: Pick someone who exhibits good "people skills." "Real estate is both art and science. And part of the art is knowing how to get along with people," points out Peter G. Miller, a Silver Spring-based author of several books on real estate. Even if he doesn't offend you personally, an obnoxious agent could put a damper on your real estate deal by offending the home seller or other agents involved.

* No. 7: Pick an agent who is active in the area you've targeted. John Doe might be a splendid agent to show you property in neighborhoods A and B. But if you're interested in neighborhoods C and D, Jane Doe -- another good agent who specializes in those communities -- could be a far better choice.

One good way to find out whether John or Jane truly specializes in the area you're considering is to drive through and see whether their respective realty firms have for-sale signs posted in the area.

* No. 8: Don't attempt to engage two agents for the same neighborhood.

If you're a buyer looking for property in more than one area, it's perfectly appropriate to engage an agent for each area. After all, you'll need a true specialist for each community. But trying to use two or more agents for the same area simultaneously raises ethical questions. Is it fair to ask several agents to work for you when their chances of reasonable compensation are limited?

Even if you're comfortable with the ethics of using multiple agents, realize that the practical realities could prove troublesome. For example, if you decide to buy a house that Agent A showed you the first time, but Agent B showed you second, you could be caught in the middle of a turf battle between the agents over which one is entitled to the commission paid by the seller.

* No. 9: Rule out most agents who are moonlighters. Many a full-time teacher or government worker tries to fit in a second job selling homes during evenings or weekends. But given the increasing complexity of real estate, moonlighters often have a tough time keeping up with the field, says Mr. Karavasilis, the RE/MAX owner from Columbia.

An agent whose livelihood depends solely on real estate is usually the one who will give you the best service. But even Mr. Karavasilis, who would steer you away from a moonlighter, allows that some are excellent agents.

"There are some exceptional people who are really able to work 24 hours," he says.

* No. 10: Think through the implications of engaging a "buyer's agent."

Ninety-five percent of U.S. realty agents still function in traditional roles. But there's increasing public interest in the small but hardy breed of "buyers' agents," or "buyers' brokers," who will pledge their loyalties solely to a buyer. Some agents, such as Pamela Shaw of Coldwell Banker in Columbia, will function either as a traditional showing agent or a "buyer's agent."

It could be a smart move to engage a "buyer's agent." But think through the implications. If you're buying in a community where buyer's agents are a rarity, the seller might be wary of your offer. And there are also questions about payment of the "buyer's agent." Find out how your "buyer's agent" would be compensated if you don't ultimately make a house purchase or drop the agent because you're unhappy with him.

One day, "buyers' agents" may become common throughout the U.S. real estate market. But if that's not yet the case in your community, are you willing to play pioneer?

Ms. Shaw notes, "We're just on the cusp of this change."

(Ellen James Martin is a columnist for The Sun.)

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