Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips for Getting the Best Agent

Are you intending to sell a home in a neighborhood where buyers have long outnumbered sellers, and properties have flown off the market in recent years? If so, you could be at risk for overconfidence in a changing market.

Lawrence Yun, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (, says “supply and affordability headwinds” are now beginning to impact overall sales.

“Demand continues to overwhelm supply in most of the country,” says Yun, noting that in the face of price gains, some potential purchasers are beginning to back off, if only temporarily.

Real estate analysts aren’t issuing dire warnings. But they say that, as always, sellers should contain their expectations within reasonable levels, making sure they don’t overprice their place.

“It’s never wise to come out of the gate with a price that’s too aggressive. Almost inevitably, sellers who are greedy fall short in the end,” says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of “House Selling for Dummies.”

Tyson cites another time-honored piece of advice for sellers: do plenty of homework when selecting the right listing agent.

How can you screen agents to find the best one for your listing? Hiring experts stress the importance of one-on-one interviews.

Jodi R.R. Smith, a human resources trainer who heads her own consulting firm (, says, “It’s worth the time to find a fabulous person to sell your place,” as your home is most likely your greatest asset.

To begin, she recommends you create a preliminary list of five to 10 agents who are recommended by people you know. Then pre-screen each with a five-minute phone interview.

“If you don’t (have a rapport), you don’t want to waste your time -- or their time -- having them come to your house,” Smith says.

Telephone pre-screening should cut your list of potential agents to three or four, all of whom Smith recommends you invite to your home for in-person interviews.

Here are a few pointers on interviewing:

-- Ask open-ended questions of your 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.

-- Seek to quantify your 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?

“You need to know how well each candidate is doing statistically and how they compare with other agents in the area. Fortunately, real estate ... (uses) a lot of metrics to measure success,” Smith says.

-- Look for good manners as an indicator of competence.

Smith says you should consider as listing agents only those 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.

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

“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.

-- Weed out agents who don’t take your sale seriously.

Given that you have much at stake when selling a home, Hall says you need to make sure the listing agent you engage will treat your listing seriously. How can you tell which agents might give your property less than a 100 percent effort? Often, there are red flags, he says.

“One bad sign is if the agent doesn’t arrive on time for your listing appointment. You don’t want to hear excuses, unless it’s something they couldn’t help, like a tire blowing out on the road,” Hall says.

-- Avoid a listing agent who is green.

Cathleen Faerber, an executive recruiter for the Wellesley Group, recalls a “disastrous mistake” she made in the past 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.

“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