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Realities of Real Estate: Buyer, be aware of right agent

In our last column, we wrote about how to select a listing agent. This week, we’ll cover the other side of the coin and talk about how to select and work with a buyer’s agent.

A number of years ago, buyer agents didn’t even exist. Back then, agents all represented the sellers. Nevertheless, many buyers would incorrectly be under the impression that agents were working on their behalf. Today, agency rules are much clearer, and regulations make sure agents are always upfront about who’s representing who. Agents can now enter into an agreement with buyers that allows them to work entirely on the buyer’s behalf, and although that agent’s commission will almost always come from the seller, a buyer agent’s fiduciary responsibility is still entirely to the buyer.

Most agents tend to gravitate toward acting either primarily as a listing agent or a buyer’s agent, but most will do some of both. There are certain skill sets, such as negotiation tactics and properly identifying market values, that both buyer and listing agents must possess, but in many ways the two functions are quite different. For a listing agent, it’s all about marketing and the knack for showcasing a house to both buyers and their agents. With a buyer’s agent, there’s more interaction with clients, and certain people skills are a valuable part of the job.

One of those people skills is the ability to be a good listener. Buyers aren’t always able to clearly communicate what they’re looking for in a house. And especially for first-time home buyers, the idea of what they want in a home is constantly evolving. As a result, it’s important for a good buyer’s agent to catch the often-subtle clues that buyers give as they proceed with their home search. For example, a buyer might say that he wants a big yard, but what he really means is that he wants privacy.

Patience is also a virtue for a buyer agent. Buying real estate can be complicated and confusing, and there is little in life as personal as the sanctuary of where we rest our head at night. So buying a house isn’t some sort of snap decision, meaning a buyer’s agent must take things slowly when necessary. Some agents get a little too focused on the commission and tend to forget the considerations that might make a buyer seem indecisive. In reality, that buyer is just trying to make a good decision. Some people can do that fairly quickly; others need a little bit more hand-holding.

Another trait of top buyer agents is ability to be an effective educator. Even for buyers who have purchased several properties, the market and tools for house hunting have usually changed quite a bit from the last go-round. Technology is always changing the landscape, and a buyer’s agent who is up-to-date with the latest tools and techniques can make it significantly easier for her client to find a house, have smooth communications and seamlessly travel to settlement.

Also, one of the most difficult things in life is to make something that is complicated easy to understand. A good buyer’s agent will be able to translate even the most convoluted legalese of a contract into everyday language. The same goes for technology. Computers, cellphones and tablets can be extraordinarily useful tools, but those darn black boxes can also drive you nuts when they don’t work right. An effective buyer’s agent can help deploy technology to meet the needs of different buyers.

Along those lines, flexibility is also a key characteristic of a buyer’s agent. Some couples can have a significant conflict over what constitutes the right house at the right price, and a good buyer’s agent can tactfully help them reach common ground. And when it comes to technology, regardless of where an agent is along the spectrum of technology use, the best ones always have the flexibility to mirror whatever works best for the client. The best buyer agents will be willing to do everything from using Skype to sending up smoke signals.

Last, the role of a buyer’s agent has changed quite a bit over the last decade. Before we had the Internet, agents were the gatekeepers of information on homes for sale. If you were a buyer, short of driving around, looking for signs, the only way to know what properties were available was to contact an agent. In addition, the only way to know what a house was like was to get in a car and go see it with an agent. Now, a buyer can, with the click of a mouse, access nearly all information available to agents. With this change, buyer agents now spend a lot less time driving around, showing properties. In most cases, a buyer has done quite a bit of research and investigation before coming to an agent. As a result, the contribution of a buyer’s agent has shifted a bit toward the back-end functions of contract negotiations and execution. Even so, finding the right house still does — and always will — require the guidance of a knowledgeable agent.

In sum, our last bit of advice is to find a buyer’s agent that you enjoy being with. Buying a house is a stressful task, but if you do it with someone who knows how to crack a joke or two and take the edge off, it can also be a fun and exciting experience.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience. Their email address is