Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Are you a homeowner who for several years has been sitting on the sidelines waiting for a stronger market before you sell? Are you finally ready to put your place up for sale this spring?

If so, you're not alone, says Ronald Phipps, a real estate broker and recent president of the National Association of Realtors (

"Home sellers are more pragmatic now. They're no longer holding their families and plans hostage for some magical price they might have gotten in the past. They're ready to sell now," Phipps says.

Not all neighborhood real estate markets have yet recovered, of course. But Phipps says many brokers throughout the country are reporting that the pace of sales has begun to pick up.

One group of owners who expect to sell soon consists of those wanting to advance from a starter home to something larger.

"These move-up buyers -- mostly in their 30s and 40s -- want to buy a better home while mortgage rates are still low," Phipps says.

Another category of homeowners anxious to sell is made up of baby boomers who want to reinvent their lifestyles now that their children are grown. They're mostly looking for smaller, more efficient homes, according to Phipps.

Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "House Selling for Dummies," says anyone planning to sell a home should take all the time necessary to find the strongest available real estate agent to list their property.

Despite the significant challenges facing the industry in recent years, membership in the National Association of Realtors has remained strong. The organization now has more than one million members -- up from about 800,000 a decade ago. With so many players in the market, Tyson says it shouldn't be hard to find a well-qualified agent in your area.

How can you screen agents to find the best one for your listing?

Jodi R.R. Smith, a human resources trainer who heads her own consulting firm ( suggests you create a preliminary list of five to 10 agents who are recommended by people you know. Then pre-screen each with a brief phone interview. Focus on the agents with whom you establish a rapport, and ditch the ones you don't.

This should leave you with about three or four agents. Now it's time for in-person interviews. Here are a few pointers:

-- Pose open-ended questions to the candidates.

As the founder of MarketStar, (, a large sales and marketing company, Alan Hall has interviewed hundreds of job applicants. Experience has taught him that open-ended questions elicit the most revealing answers.

"For example, ask them about a past failure they had in their real estate career and how they handled it. They should tell you how they turned failure into a learning experience. If they stumble in response, that's not a good sign," Hall says.

-- Request statistics on each agent's past performance.

Smith recommends you ask all the candidates for data on the homes they've sold in the last six months. In each case, what percentage of the list price did the homeowners obtain? And how many days did the property sit on the market before it sold? She also cautions against hiring an agent who promises to get you much more than the others say your home is worth.

-- Screen for frankness but also good manners.

Smith says you should consider only those agents who are candid in assessing the changes needed to make your property sell for its full market value. But you don't want someone who is overly blunt.

"I need to know, for example, that my NASCAR-themed bathroom must be painted over. But I want someone to tell me tactfully," Smith says.

She recommends you tell all the agents how much money you have for pre-sale upgrades and then ask them to give you a list of priorities.

"Ask for their gut reactions and whether, for example, you would be better off spending the money you have to plant flowers beside your front entrance or to paint your bathroom. The right agent should have good suggestions that fit in your budget," Smith says.

-- Make sure you hire an agent with sufficient experience to do the job.

Cathleen Faerber, an executive recruiter for the Wellesley Group (, recalls a "disastrous mistake" she made a few years back when, without an interview, she hired a friend to list her house for sale.

"This person, who was my neighbor, was a newbie to real estate. She clearly lacked the background to do the job. During the six months she had my listing she failed to advertise my house. The result was zero traffic and the loss of a lot of prime selling time," Faerber remembers.

After the first agent's listing agreement expired, Faerber interviewed several replacement candidates. She soon found a seasoned agent who was successful in selling the property for a good price just a few weeks later.

"This second agent had been in the business forever. She was a great negotiator who knew how to market my house. She also priced the house correctly, which is very critical," Faerber says.

She recommends sellers carefully screen potential listing agents through interview questions that help draw out their track records.

"Ask them to walk you through the methodology they use to market homes and how they've met challenges. Past performance is always an indicator of future performance," she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at