Fall Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Friday, October 1, 2004

A cut above
How does a seller choose an agent?

by Terry Tang

For a homeowner, finding the perfect real estate agent can be as harrowing as a parent searching for the perfect nanny. After all, each is seeking someone to take care of a cherished and valuable possession. And little mistakes could result in costly consequences.

For some, advertisements or referrals from friends are the only background information necessary. But, whether it's one representative or a whole team, the hired agent will be working closely with the seller, dealing with everything from contracts to carpeting. So, property sellers should contemplate doing their own research -- whether it's verifying references or spending time with the agent. In fact, people may want to search for an ideal candidate the way Donald Trump would and question an agent's past experiences and strategies.

When Martin Mazner decided to sell his Palo Alto home in January, he talked with six agents recommended by others. He then narrowed the group down to three agents and asked each one to write up a one-page marketing plan. Mazner wanted to know what kind of advertising would be done, how they would handle open houses or whether flyers would be used. Most importantly, he coveted a quick sale without endless open house days.

"Of the final three, one of them did it and he did a very good job. He thought it was perfectly logical," Mazner said. "Another one did it -- I don't want to say begrudgingly -- but he was not comfortable with the process. The third one thought I was ridiculous. He said 'This is who I am, take it or leave it.' We decided to leave it."

For Joy Valentine of Coldwell Banker in Los Altos, an agent refusing to do that seems atypical. Home sellers shouldn't be afraid to request something laid out on paper.

"Of all the characteristics I've seen in this industry, the greatest I've seen is the enormous diversity and variety of agents -- in terms of their personalities, what they're willing to provide," Valentine said. "I would expect that most Realtors would be quite willing to do that."

Mazner, a high-tech entrepreneur with a background in marketing, said conducting thorough interviews simply made sense. The entire process can only be to the homeowner's advantage. He can see early on how organized -- or mediocre -- an agent can be. He also finds it helpful to drive through the neighborhood to see if any Realtors handle a majority of the sales. An agent who is familiar with a seller's residential area will have a good idea of how to market that home.

Besides trend awareness, an agent can never have too many safeguards for clients. Sellers, said Bob Taylor of Palo Alto-based Taylor Properties, would be wise to invest in errors and omissions insurance, which will decrease their liability for any mistakes or misrepresentations made by an agent. Furthermore, agents should be able to provide clients other resources if complications arise.

"A lot of what you want is to be able to have access," Taylor said. "If a more complex transaction comes up, a good agent has access to legal assistant and more advanced help in case you need it."

Sometimes personality trumps business skill. According to Bob "BC" Cross, also with Coldwell Banker for the past three years, an agent-client relationship will be a lot more productive if the two parties establish some sort of rapport.
"If you can talk to them about anything other than the real estate transaction and find some common ground, you'll have a better chance of landing them as a client," Cross said. "It has nothing to do with the level of experience. It's more of a comfort level because you have to trust the people you're working with. It's just a symbiotic thing that works."

Screening five or six prospective agents, however, isn't always crucial. In Valentine's opinion, choosing the first agent one meets after careful consideration is just as safe and reasonable.

"I don't think there's any right or wrong way to do that," Valentine said. "The person doing the interviewing knows what it is that's important to them."
Another issue sellers should contemplate is the repercussions of pursuing the best salesperson. Some people want seasoned real estate agents who are in the company's top tier. But, successful agents may end up assigning transactions to assistants and only meet clients during the initial contract signing.

"It may be better to deal with someone new who has more time, more energy and more interest," Valentine said. "The only way they're going to find out is by talking to that person but be clear from the beginning about what's important to them."

A knack for multi-tasking is another quality sellers should focus on. The paper trail that real estate agents amass per client has only increased over the last few years. Besides drafting contracts, they are expected to deal with inspections, update multiple listings or set the stage for an open house. Sometimes, agents must accomplish all this while owners go on vacation or reside elsewhere.
With the Internet, agents do more advertising and business with out-of-state buyers and sellers. More people look to Web sites before the local paper. An ideal agent knows how to stay wired but without alienating tech-phobic clients.
"If the client is Internet savvy, that's important. You can do so much through e-mailing listings, contracts and closures to clients," Taylor said. "If you have an older-fashioned type client, then an agent should be able to do it both ways."
In the end, doing more investigation in deciding on the right agent should help put the seller at ease in the long run. At least, that was the case for Mazner. He was impressed at how his agent managed the whole process in a well-conceived manner. In March, the chosen agent conducted one open house a week after listing his residence. Several offers and eight days later, they closed on escrow.
"I didn't appreciate him as much as I did until I heard from some of the other [agents]," Mazner said. "I liked his approach; it made sense to me...it became very clear why he was the top 1 percent."

Although luck and timing play larger roles at times, people can limit that by doing their homework and not choosing an agent on a whim.

"It's kind of a potluck approach," Taylor said. "You never know what's going to happen. But, the more people can do in advance to get to know the person ... sometimes even an agent referred by someone else who has used that person may not be the right one for you."