It's a pity, but many people spend more time picking a new suit of clothes than selecting an agent to market their home, real estate experts lament.
"The No. 1 mistake home sellers make is to select the first agent they encounter," said Monte Helme, a vice president for Century 21 Real Estate Corp.
The suit of clothes might cost you $25, $50, $75 or $100. But chances are you have thousands at stake in the sale of your home. And these days, buyers are both fewer in number and more sophisticated than in years past. You need an agent with an equally sophisticated marketing strategy to nab one of the now-very-picky buyers.
"Buyers are not as impetuous as they were in the '80s. They're being far more deliberate in their selections," says Dorcas Helfant, the newly elected president of the National Association of Realtors.
Although home sellers are generally aware that market conditions have changed radically since the 1980s in many communities, Ms. Helfant said, far too many still mistakenly believe a casual approach to agent selection will prove successful.
For those interested in making a more careful choice, realty experts offer these pointers:
* Pick an agent who knows your local turf.
Real estate is an incredibly parochial field. When an agent tries to sell a home in Columbia, for instance, it's of little help that he knows the neighborhoods of Catonsville, said Sally Bielaski, sales manager for Coldwell Banker's Howard County office.
To get a preliminary list of agents who work locally, search out For Sale signs in your community, check mailers circulated to your home, or go to open houses held nearby. You can also ask neighbors about agents they've worked with.
* Try to interview three or four agents before you make your selection.
"Selecting an agent is just like going to the supermarket. When you go to the apples you don't just pick the top apple on the pile, do you?" Mr. Helme said.
* Look to sales ratios rather than total sales logged by a prospective agent.
Total sales volume isn't always a good indicator. That's because some agents play a numbers game. They amass numerous listings in hopes that some will sell just as a matter of course. You want someone who will give your listing the maximum possible attention.
Ask the agents you're considering how many of the homes they listed last year sold. This ratio can prove a valuable piece of information.
* Ask a prospective agent for references.
You'll want to ask for at least two references from clients the agent served in the past three to six months. Ask the former clients whether the agent followed through on his promises and worked hard to sell their property. "A five-minute conversation should give you a pretty good profile," Mr. Helme said.
* Look for an agent who doesn't hesitate to say unflattering things about your home.
Whether it hurts your pride or not, you need to know the true market value of your home, not some pie-in-the-sky claim about its worth. An overpriced home usually takes longer to sell and goes for less than would one that's priced correctly at the outset when a property attracts the most notice from buyers.
You also need to know about those minor improvements that jTC would make your home more marketable without unusual hardship or expense, like that fuchsia bedroom that should be painted antique white or the carpet that should be cleaned. Like the buyers that come through your home, the agent offers an objective look at your property. Your own perception is probably somewhat subjective.
"Even a rhinoceros is beautiful to another rhinoceros. The problem is that the buyer may not be another rhinoceros. He may be a parakeet that flies in," Ms. Helfant comments.
* Look for an agent who lays out a specific marketing plan for your home.
"If I were a seller these days, I would demand the marketing plan in writing. And if the agent is unwilling to do that, that's a lazy agent. I'd keep on looking," Mr. Helme advises.
Spelled out in the plan shoud be details related to such things as pricing, advertising, open houses and how often the agent will call or write to report on progress toward selling your home.
"One of the biggest complaints people have about their agents is that they don't communicate. They feel like they're being ignored," Mr. Helme said.
* Find an agent who keeps himself fresh by taking courses and seminars.
"Agents who are very aggressive always want to bring fresh ideas to their marketing," Ms. Helfant said. They're anxious to learn more about sales techniques, financing and the legal aspects of contracts. By staying active in their field, they're also able to spread the word about properties they've listed and that means your home could sell faster.
* Don't pick an agent who pursues real estate as a second career.
Government workers, teachers, nurses, accountants and insurance people are among those who try to sell homes on the side. Too often they lack the time and focus to treat their listings seriously, Ms. Bielaski said.
All too frequently, those who have another job fall out of sync with the market, Ms. Bielaski said.
* Pick an agent who is aggressive in promoting himself.
Sales jobs require someone who is both assertive and tenacious. If the agent is persistent (though not obnoxious) in trying to win your business, chances are he will press hard for your sale, too, Mr. Helme says.
"There's a direct correlation between how aggressive someone is in promoting himself and how aggressive he will be in selling your house," he said.