On the verge of hiring an agent to sell your house? Then real estate experts strongly recommend that you do what employers do: Check references.
"Selling your home is probably one of the largest financial transactions you'll ever make. So it's a very, very smart idea to ask an agent for references," says Judy Plowman, sales manager for the Bel Air office of Coldwell Banker Grempler Real Estate.
To be sure, the task of calling a half-dozen previous customers to ask about an agent's performance can seem like a troublesome waste of time. But it's far more trouble, say the experts, to wind up firing an agent you didn't properly check out in the first place.
"There's good and bad in every profession, including real estate. And the best way to find the good agent is to call others who have done business with the agent and ask them what they think," says Gary R. Daniels, a consultant to major real estate brokers across the country.
Most sellers think that a personal referral is enough, says Ms. Plowman.
These sellers reckon that if a cousin, close friend or co-worker liked a particular agent, that agent is a sure bet for them. After a face-to-face meeting with a recommended agent, they'll willingly sign a listing agreement -- giving the agent the sole right to sell their house for a period as long as six to nine months.
"What most sellers are looking for is a feeling of comfort with the agent. That's how they make their selection," according to Ms. Plowman.
But hunches about an agent's quality that are based on chemistry can mislead.
And a referral that comes from a single associate is not always enough. Just because your cousin had a good experience selling his 40-year-old split level through Sally J. doesn't mean she's the right one to market your nearly new ranch-style house. You need more information on an agent than your cousin can supply.
"By asking the right questions about an agent to several references, you'll get that much closer to a good experience in selling your home," Mr. Daniels says.
Before you commit to the selection of an agent, Mr. Daniels recommends you ask that agent for at least three names of customers whose homes that agent has sold during the prior three to six months. Then call those references and pose specific questions about the agent's performance.
"It's important to call and certify what the agent has told you," says Carole Greenwald, who heads the Baltimore regional office of Prudential Preferred Properties.
* Here are five key questions that realty specialists say you should pose to an agent's past customers.
* No. 1: Did the agent set a realistic selling price from the outset?
An honorable agent will offer an honest assessment of what a home will bring from the beginning rather than simply trying to win a listing by telling the seller what he wants to hear.
"Some agents just fish for the price the owner wants. They're after the listing at any price," Mr. Daniels says.
Of course, it can be flattering to think your home can fetch a high price. But since an overpriced house can ultimately waste both the time and money of a seller, an agent who prices too high does the owner no favor, Mr. Daniels says.
* No. 2: Did the agent offer useful ideas on how to prepare your home to be shown?
Getting handed a videotape on how to prep your house for market is not enough, according to Mr. Daniels. "The agent should go room by room, telling you specific things that need to be done."
* No. 3: Did the agent use a broad-based advertising and direct marketing program for your house?
"Most ads are boring and unimaginative," says Prudential's Ms. Greenwald.
Good agents not only write stimulating newspaper copy. They also prepare and circulate photo brochures and direct mail fliers on a property.
"The successful ones have very comprehensive marketing programs," she says.
* No. 4: How well did the agent communicate with you?
"The communication aspect between seller and listing agent is probably the most crucial thing that comes into play," says Ms. Plowman, the Bel Air sales manager.
Calls from the agent on sales activity related to the property give the owner important feedback from the market, telling him whether adjustments in price and condition should be done to get the house sold.
A good agent will call the seller at least once a week, even if there's been no sales activity on the property. Ideally, an agent will check with the owner twice or three times a week.
* No. 5: What were the agent's final results on price and time to sell?
Mr. Daniels, the realty industry consultant, is very critical of agents who forecast long selling times for residential real estate.
An agent who, based on a careful analysis of recent sales, pinpoints a realistic price for a property should not, on average, make his client wait more than two or three months for a contract, Mr. Daniels asserts.
A superior agent typically brings in 90 percent to 95 percent of the initial asking price at the closing table, Mr. Daniels says. He says you should be wary of an agent who has to resort to several downward price adjustments, spanning the listing term.
"They ought to be very proficient at hitting the market going in," Mr. Daniels says.
(Ellen James Martin is a columnist for The Sun.)