- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2001

Finding a Realtor is easy just look in the telephone book or use a popular search engine on the Internet.

Finding the "right" Realtor for your personal needs takes a tad more effort.

Lucky are the folks who have a friend or an acquaintance recommend a Realtor who shares their philosophy or style. A relationship can blossom easily.

The remaining buyers and sellers need to search for and interview potential agents until they find one with whom they mesh. Plenty of relationships between agents and customers founder on the rocks of incompatibility, which could be avoided by taking time to find the right Realtor before entering into an agreement.

There are about as many opinions about the most important qualities of a good Realtor as there are agents in the Washington area. Most, however, agree that it is essential to interview several agents before choosing a partner in what for most people is the most significant purchase of their lives.

A first step is to find a likely neighborhood and gather a handful of referrals or meet a Realtor or two at open houses. Follow up with a brief face-to-face meeting with each Realtor, agents recommend.

"I think the most important step a buyer or seller can take is to contact a good real estate company, one that's well-established and has a good infrastructure," says Angela Eliopoulos, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in McLean and Georgetown. "The broker's experience and his support of the agents is very important, so people should choose the right company first, then find the right agent to work with in that company."

According to Realtor Casey Thompson of Weichert Realtors in Great Falls, "The best way to find a compatible Realtor is to get a personal referral. If you ask someone you like, then you'll probably like his or her Realtor, too. Then ask to meet the Realtor at their office or your home for 20 minutes or so and see how well you get along."

Most Realtors are willing to meet with potential clients and expect to answer questions as well as to interview and offer pointers to clients themselves.

"I go on a 'first date' with a potential client to see if we click," says Realtor Glen Sutcliffe of Randall Hagner Realtors in the District. "At the same time, I explain the entire home-buying and -selling process. Buying a home is a scary process, and buyers unfortunately often don't trust Realtors, so I try to earn their trust by explaining the whole process to them before they ever look at a house.

"I want my customers to feel comfortable asking what I'm doing and what they're signing, and I want to be sure they understand how a contract works. Besides looking for an agent they can trust, buyers should look for an agent with patience," Mr. Sutcliffe says. "A professional with a lot of patience can help keep a client from getting frustrated with the mountain of paperwork that's required when you buy a house."

Customers should view their initial meeting with a Realtor as an opportunity for education, along with a chance to evaluate the potential professional relationship.

"When I have an orientation meeting with new customers, I sit down with them and present them with a questionnaire which will hopefully lead to establishing a rapport with them," Mrs. Eliopoulos says. "A lot of buyers are not familiar with buyer agency, so I try to educate them so they understand the process. From their side, it's important to ask to see referrals from other customers. Most agents have a portfolio with letters from previous clients, which can be looked at by new customers."

Realtors, too, occasionally find clients with whom they would prefer not to work.

"The interview is a two-way street," says Realtor Sue Smith of RE/MAX Premier's Dulles office. "The relationship between the customer and the Realtor has to be a winner for everyone. If you understand your personality, then it makes it easier for you to look for a Realtor with a compatible personality. Consumers pay a lot when they buy or sell a house, and they deserve professionalism from anyone they choose to work for them."

Mrs. Eliopoulos recently turned away a client who refused to get pre-qualified for a loan, explaining it would waste her time and his to look for homes without a lender's approval letter.

"There are a variety of ways to avoid working with someone," says Carol Temple, Realtor with Coldwell Banker Stevens in Arlington. "But the truth is, usually if I don't click with someone, they usually don't click with me, either. I never just meet with someone at a house they want to see because I prefer to meet with them in my office for an hour or two to see if there's a working relationship to be had. If I don't feel comfortable with them, a legitimate excuse can be that they are looking for a house in an area where I don't work."

"If I meet someone and I know they will be difficult to work with or they are someone I'm not comfortable with," Mrs. Thompson says, "I will recommend another agent in my office. Now that I've been in the business a long time, I work almost entirely by referrals or repeat customers, so I've asked other agents to work with customers I might find difficult."

Ms. Smith says, "Any relationship between a Realtor and a client which isn't working shouldn't be forced, and so it should be gently ended if it's not working. It all depends on what a customer is looking for.

"If someone wants an agent who will hold his or her hand every day personally, then I'm not the right agent," she says. "If they need a phone call every day, then I suggest they work with a different agent. But I'm very honest and upfront when I meet a potential client, explaining that when they hire me they are hiring a team of professionals, each trained to specialize. I explain the role and the function of each member of my team so they know who they will be talking with at different times."

Some Realtors work with an assistant or several associates. There are advantages and disadvantages to this arrangement, and buyers and sellers should weigh them carefully. Even Realtors are split on the use of assistants.

"Something I would ask a Realtor if I were a buyer is, 'How much work do you do yourself for each client?' " Mrs. Thompson says. "So often today Realtors have so many assistants that everything gets parceled out, even the negotiating and the settlement. If that's OK with the customer, that's fine, but it seems to me this is a major complaint from some people who would prefer more individual attention."

Mrs. Eliopoulos says, "Many of the top producers don't spend as much time with their customers and use their assistants or trainees to work with them instead. If you're lucky enough to find a top producer to spend a lot of time with you, then it's worth searching for someone with all that experience. But if they don't spend time with you, it's not worth it."

Ms. Smith, however, recommends that people actively look for a Realtor who uses the team approach because each team member can bring a special knowledge to the process and at least one team member is always available to assist customers.

Mrs. Thompson prefers a more personal approach. "I feel that it's important to have personal contact with my clients all the way through the home buying or selling process," she says. "I like to know every word said every step of the way. But it's an individual decision whether to work with a team or a single agent."

Buyers and sellers usually lean toward experience, often preferring to work with a top producer who has sold hundreds of homes over working with a new agent. But the choice is more complicated than that, Realtors say.

"The bottom line is that choosing a Realtor really depends on the person and whether they are an ambitious problem solver or not," Mr. Sutcliffe says. "Sometimes, a top producer doesn't have time for all of their clients, and while a new agent sometimes doesn't know what he's doing, he can also be more ambitious and will work harder to resolve problems."

Mrs. Eliopoulos suggests, "Even if you're working with a new agent, or especially if you're working with a new agent, you should choose a reputable company. A new agent in particular will need to rely on the guidance of a good broker."

Most Realtors agree that it's not necessary to find a Realtor who specializes in selling a particular type of home or within a certain price range, since the majority of Realtors have the flexibility to sell a $60,000 condominium and a $2 million mansion at the same time. But finding a Realtor who specializes in a particular neighborhood or region is important.

"Everyone should ask carefully about the experience of a Realtor in the neighborhood where they want to buy a house," Mrs. Thompson says. "For instance, where I work in Great Falls you need to know about things like septic fields and testing and issues which are not necessarily common in other areas."

Ms. Smith also believes in geographical specialization.

"It's important to work with a Realtor who lives and works in the area that you're interested in because they have a specialized knowledge of the value of the homes and can help you find the community you want," she says. "I've actually turned down listings sometimes which are outside of my territory of western Fairfax County and Loudoun County because I felt like I didn't have enough knowledge about the area."

Aside from neighborhood experience are the issues of comfort and confidence.

"What matters most is the agent's ability and attention to detail, their ability to negotiate, and their lack of fear about the marketplace and other agents," Mrs. Temple says. "People need to have confidence that their agent has been in enough situations to really help a buyer or seller to achieve what they want. One of the most critical issues in helping customers achieve what they want is working well with other agents. Having a good reputation and a good working relationship with other agents can help a client tremendously."

Ms. Smith says sellers often choose a Realtor based only on the proposed listing price, a common mistake.

"During the interview process, people would rather choose the Realtor who will list their home at the highest price, and they don't think about the value of an experienced Realtor's opinion of the price they should ask," she says. "There are so many qualities buyers and sellers should look for in a Realtor, but honesty and integrity should come first. Good Realtors should be high communicators, self-starters, proactive, fair and ready to wear 15 different hats."

Ask the right questions.

• How long have you been a Realtor? (If an agent is new, ask if he will work with another more experienced agent if problems occur.)

• What did you do before becoming a Realtor?

• How many homes do you sell a year?

• Have you won any awards in the past few years?

• How much time do you spend with each client?

• How often should I expect to hear from you?

• Do you have an assistant or more than one? If so, what is their role in your office and will I have contact with them as well as you?

• In which neighborhoods do you specialize?

• Do you do most of your work in a particular price range?

• What is your relationship with your fellow agents? How do you think they view you?

• May I speak with former customers of yours?

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