New-home search requires an agent with special skills

SMART MOVES

August 29, 1993|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

Are you so weary of old-house problems that you've resolved to buy a new home? Then arrange to have a skilled agent accompany you on model-home tours.

Most real estate agents spend their time selling re-sale (used) properties.

But some have special expertise in the new-home market. They know local developments, builders' reputations and -- perhaps most importantly -- how to negotiate for a good price and terms.

"There are agents who specialize in new-home sales. They can talk turkey with you and tell you about construction techniques. They know much more than what's in the glossy sales brochures," says Monte Helme, a vice president for the Century 21 Realty chain.

Most people don't take an agent with them when they scout new developments. Rather, they rely on sales people who work at the model homes -- typically employees or representatives of the homebuilder.

"The people who work at the models are just hired hands. They can tell you how to get to Model 4, and, 'Be sure to turn the lights off when you leave.' But as far as technical questions, about how the home was built, they wouldn't have a clue," Mr. Helme says.

But experienced outside agents can provide insight, helping you choose the right builder, locate the best lot and pick options such as dining room chandeliers or kitchen tile. And they could help you get a better deal on your home, says Robert Irwin, author of "Tips and Traps When Buying a Home," a McGraw-Hill Inc. paperback.

For decades, most Americans have shopped for new homes the way they shop for new cars -- relying on the guidance of showroom sales people. Negotiation seemed out of the question, Mr. Irwin says.

"In the past, builders set the prices and terms and you could take it or leave it. I'm not sure it would have made a whole lot of difference whether you brought an agent with you," he says.

But profits are tougher to come by these days. And while a new home's base price is still firm for most builders, many have become more flexible in setting terms and prices for options, Mr. Irwin says. "Since builders have had to become more flexible, a good agent can negotiate a better deal for you."

Here are some pointers:

* Take an agent with you on your initial shopping expeditions.

Most homebuilders will share a sales commission with an agent who brings a buyer into a development. It's called "co-oping."

But if you show up at "Camelot Acres" the first time without an agent, and later decide you want an agent to assist with a purchase there, you've got a problem.

In most cases, your builder will not pay the commission of an agent who hasn't introduced you to the development.

* Consider engaging a "buyer's broker."

By tradition, real estate agents are legally beholden to represent the interests of home sellers -- even when they have been engaged by a buyer to help find a home. So, they're limited in their ability to negotiate on behalf of a buyer.

These days, though, you can select an agent who actively advocates your interests -- a buyer's broker. Even major realty chains are training agents to work either in the traditional context or as buyer's brokers. So, you have a wider choice.

"Any real estate broker can become a buyer's broker," Mr. Irwin says.

* Search out an agent who is a new-home specialist.

"The vast majority of real estate agents work the existing-home market. They're really not exposed to new construction," warns Mr. Helme, the Century 21 executive. "Ask them how a roof is built, for example, and they can't tell you."

There are many ways to get recommendations for an experienced agent. Calls to major local builders can yield names of real estate agents whom they see most often and respect.

"The builders are fairly knowledgeable about agents. And they're not a bit timid about recommending someone," Mr. Helme says.

The sales manager of a real estate office also can be a good bet for names, says Karl Metsch, an agent for the Hunt Valley office of Prudential Preferred Properties.

But when calling a manager, be sure to specify that you're looking for a new-home specialist. Otherwise, you're likely to get the name of the next generalist -- perhaps a mediocre agent -- who happens to rise to the head of the list, he says.

Many managers use a rotation system for making referrals, he notes.

Even if you choose a generalist, pick someone who is actively involved in selling homes, says Mr. Irwin, the author.

"You always want a performer working for you," he said. "The last thing you want is your cousin Fred's brother-in-law who just happens to be in the business and desperately needs the work."

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