Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

QUALITY AGENT CAN BE CRUCIAL

More than a million real estate agents belong to the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org), but a number have become inactive in recent years.

"The bad real estate market knocked out many bad agents," says Karen Rittenhouse, author of "The Essential Handbook for Selling a Home," and owner of a realty firm.

She recommends that home sellers search for an agent who is "energetic, motivated, self-starting and go-getting." Also, look for someone familiar enough with your area to recommend a list price that's neither too high nor too low.

"Pricing a house right is 90 percent of the battle to getting it sold," says Rittenhouse.

Although many sellers take a casual approach to choosing a real estate agent -- picking a friend or relative at random -- she suggests a more methodical method.

"You have a huge amount of money at stake when you sell your house and a strong agent can make a meaningful difference," she says.

Here are a few tips for sellers:

-- Interview agents thoroughly.

Home sellers are routinely advised to interview at least three agents. But Rittenhouse says most sellers hire the first agent they call and do a cursory interview at most.

"You need to interview at least three agents and go in-depth with your questions. Take the process as seriously as if you were hiring a nanny to care for your kids," she says.

-- Seek a straight-talker.

Michael Crowley, a veteran real estate broker who works solely with home buyers, says an all-too-common mistake involves putting an overly high starting price on a property to "test the market," and then taking the price down peg by peg until the place sells.

"Overpricing costs you in the end. By asking too much at the beginning, you actually lengthen your selling time and probably reduce your net proceeds," he says.

Crowley cautions sellers to be wary of any agent who proposes a price substantially higher than that recommended by the other agents they've interviewed.

Also, Crowley says you should be wary of any agent who glosses over the repairs and upgrades needed to make a house saleable for the best possible price.

"If your carpet is ragged around the edges, and the agent doesn't tell you it needs replacing, watch out. He's just telling you what you want to hear, not what you need to know," Crowley says.

-- Select an agent to help with mortgage snags.

Because so many mortgages have gone into foreclosure in recent years, it's understandable that lenders are nervous about making new loans. Also, they're facing increasing scrutiny from government regulators.

"There are now many more roadblocks before anyone can get a mortgage to the finishing line," Rittenhouse says.

Before the economic downturn, home sellers and their agents didn't need to fret much about whether the buyer's loan was approved. But now the lending process is so tricky that a listing agent may also need to get involved.

"A knowledgeable seller's agent who has mortgage contacts can help clear obstacles to get an endangered transaction through," Rittenhouse says.

Be sure to ask your prospective agents to tell you how they handled mortgage snafus when they arose in the past.

-- Choose an agent who's an effective negotiator.

As a real estate investor who is continually buying and selling property, Rittenhouse knows how much skill is involved in doing deals.

"Whether you're on the buyer's or seller's side of the table, there's a tremendous amount of negotiation that goes on," she says.

Housing bargains are harder to find than they were just a year or two ago. Still, many would-be homebuyers, as well as investors, continue to troll for deals. And these so-called "bottom fishers" are likely to offer a first bid well below the true market value of your property.

Sellers were once advised to merely dismiss such "lowball offers." But if you live in a neighborhood where the supply of homes still exceeds demand, you may want to think twice. And a listing agent who is persuasive can sometimes bring a lowball bid up to a realistic level through skillful counteroffers.

As Rittenhouse says, one effective way for the listing agent to shape a strong counteroffer is with a comparative analysis of recent sales of similar homes in the same neighborhood.

Rittenhouse says savvy listing agents know to attach a written analysis of neighborhood values to any counter offer they submit on behalf of clients.

-- Pick an agent with good interpersonal skills.

Crowley says many people underestimate the importance of choosing an agent whom they find personable. Yet it can be very awkward and uncomfortable to go through the entire selling process with someone you dislike.

Also, as Crowley notes, hiring a listing agent who's on favorable terms with others in the local real estate community can hasten your sale. That's because real estate is a cooperative field, and your home is likely to be shown to more prospects if your agent is well liked by peers.

"Make sure you find an agent who's popular with other agents," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)