- - Thursday, February 23, 2012

Getting ready for the change in seasons? That hint of springtime freshness in the air can have even the most jaded homeowner ready to pull down those heavy winter curtains, brighten up the paint and maybe even change those old butcher-block countertops for brand-new granite.

So why not change your Realtor? After all, if your home has been languishing on the market all these winter months and back into the fall, it might be a good idea to dump last season’s real estate agent along with the fading poinsettias and heavy drapes.

Or is it?

Despite America’s penchant for change and innovation, most buyers and sellers tend to stand by their real estate professionals. According to data provided by the National Association of Realtors, most home sellers don’t even shop around for a listing agent; 66 percent go with the first one they contact. So you want to be sure to hire someone who can navigate the ins and outs of today’s increasingly complicated real estate transactions.

“It’s such a changing market in this area,” said Angie Bresnahan, a real estate agent with Weichert’s office in Ashburn, Va. “In 2003-2005 you didn’t need to change agents; the homes practically sold themselves.”

Of course, that could not be said a couple of years ago, when the housing market was it its worst. In those days, not only would homes stay in purchase purgatory for months on end, it was fairly likely the listing price was well below the seller’s expectations.

“During that time, you were dead if you were the first agent,” Ms. Bresnahan said. “Home values were going down at roller-coaster speeds, and you were the bearer of some extremely bad news.”

These days, Ms. Bresnahan said, homes in her bailiwick - Loudoun and Fairfax counties - have been selling at “quite the clip.”

“Agents are getting it done in less than 30 days,” she said.

Hardly enough time to change your Realtor.

Still, even today, there have been some horror stories. There’s the one about the agent who priced the home so high the seller never got an offer and another about the agent who placed a home on the Multiple Listing Service and then never contacted the seller again. Buyers have been bemused by agents who have taken them into neighborhoods where they expressly didn’t want to go or repeatedly shown them homes they couldn’t afford.

But real estate agents have their own tales to tell. All too common: the seller who expected his home to be listed at a price well above its current value.

“I kept saying the property was overpriced,” said Heather Embrey, a member of the board of directors of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and a Realtor with McEnearney Associates in McLean. “But in the end, I can’t want a property to sell more than the seller.”

Buyers, too, can come with their own sets of, well, challenges. Ms. Bresnahan remembers taking one buyer with her two young sons in tow to a fairly remote property only to discover two unknown men waiting at the door, expecting to be let in and shown around. Surprisingly, the buyer was very upset with Ms. Bresnahan’s decision to ask the unexpected lookers to make an appointment first.

“It was a security nightmare,” Ms. Bresnahan said. “This was a woman with two young children. But she said I was being rude and uppity in not allowing the people in that day.”

Needless to say, the buyer soon found another agent.

Much of what makes the agent-client relationship work, real estate professionals say, has to do with their ability to “click” with the people they are working with.

“Selling a home is personal,” Ms. Embrey said. “You have to have the right personality to click with the client.”

To really click, the agent has to be available.

“A lot of clients switch to me because of availability,” Ms. Bresnahan said. “A lot of times people have had part-time agents who can’t always accommodate their schedules.”

Good agents try to find out a bit about their clients before the initial meeting to solidify what should be a close working relationship.

“If I’ve got a client with kids, I make sure to provide appropriate snacks and coloring supplies,” Ms. Bresnahan said.

Still, not all agents are as forthcoming. If you are considering changing agents, here are a few key questions you should ask yourself before making that decision.

c Has the agent communicated? If you are a home seller, expect regular and frequent updates about how your home is showing, how it measures up to comparables in the area, and any changes that might be necessary if the home has not attracted any viable attention.

“I always do a Monday morning activity report,” Ms. Embrey said. “It’s a way of communicating with the seller about changing market conditions, any interest in the home, feedback from open houses.”

c Have you as a buyer clearly communicated your needs? Agents can only work with the information they receive from their clients. Frequently, as the home search develops, buyers may alter their original expectations and wants. It’s important for them to keep the agent in the loop as these unfold.

“I had a young couple from Maryland who were looking in McLean,” Ms. Embrey said. “They had changing expectations that were not being met by the available properties, and they didn’t let me know. In the end, they went with a property in Maryland.”

  • Are you a seller who has engaged in a bit of wishful thinking? If you have lived in your house a long time, it can be tough to realize that to outsiders, your home is not worth nearly as much as you think it is. Remember, they are the ones who will notice that the gutters are drooping, your paint is peeling and your bathroom hasn’t been updated since before you moved in. Those outsiders also are the ones who probably have spent a fair amount of time comparing your home with similar properties on the market.

“A lot of sellers are clinging to the value during the boom,” Ms. Embrey said.

  • Has your real estate agent priced your home too high? Some agents, eager to please the customer and retain a client, price homes too high initially, with the result that the homes end up languishing on the market many months before selling. Take a look at what similar homes in your neighborhood are selling for, and be sure to factor in things like condition and those hard-to-change things, like a large front lawn or too many stairs, which tend to deter today’s buyers.

“In two weeks, I can gauge pretty effectively where we are positioned pricewise,” Ms. Embrey said. “Sometimes condition can play a key role in determining the price. Today’s buyer does not have an appetite for second-rate houses.”

  • Has your agent marketed the property using all available means? Selling a home today is far different than it was 20 years ago - or even 10. NAR reports that 75 percent of prospective homebuyers use the Internet frequently in their home-search process. That’s up from 42 percent in 2003.

In fact, 35 percent of buyers went to the Internet first even before contacting a real estate professional. That means the pictures of your home circulating in cyberspace are the first impressions many potential buyers will see. A comprehensive marketing strategy that includes a variety of tools is important, and use of the Internet is key.

“Buyers are very savvy,” Ms. Bresnahan said. “They can get onto the Internet along with anyone else and see the pictures. If you are an agent who hasn’t caught on to the latest in digital photography, you’re at a real disadvantage. The Internet is actually the first showing.”

Given an unsatisfactory answer to any one of these questions, it may be time to change your Realtor. Or, it may just be time for a phone call and a lengthy conversation. Just talking things over can help re-establish priorities and clarify expectations and realities.

Even if you do want to change your real estate agent, it may not be possible to do so without a lot of grief. Be sure to check the fine print of your contract. It should mandate a specified amount of time you and your agent will be working together, which can be anywhere from two weeks to six months or even longer.

If you are a seller, you sign a listing agreement. Buyers sign a buyer’s broker agreement, which is actually a contract between the client and the broker’s real estate agency, rather than between the client and the agent specifically. Breach of contract on his or her part can be difficult to prove and expensive to resolve. Meanwhile, early termination fees can run into the hundreds of dollars, but not all brokers charge such fees.

Keep in mind that most agents are very people-savvy. They will know that the “click” they are trying to achieve with the client simply has not happened and may be more than happy to see you gone.

“The key to it all is an educated agent,” Ms. Embrey said.

Of course, being an educated client also helps.

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