Q: How can I check out a Realtor? Is there a regulatory agency that rates Realtors? I have been burned twice by Realtors when I thought I was careful, but they were shady and did not represent my interests. I’m afraid to buy again.

A: According to Webster.com, the second-most-frequently searched word of the year was "vet" — not vet as in veterinarian, but vet as in investigating one’s vice-presidential running mate’s qualifications. It seems to me that you are looking for a method of vetting your next Realtor. And wisely so; my own mother has commented on the fact that I’m both a Realtor and an attorney — neither of which ranks high on the general public’s trusted professions meter.

Q: How can I check out a Realtor? Is there a regulatory agency that rates Realtors? I have been burned twice by Realtors when I thought I was careful, but they were shady and did not represent my interests. I’m afraid to buy again.

A: According to Webster.com, the second-most-frequently searched word of the year was "vet" — not vet as in veterinarian, but vet as in investigating one’s vice-presidential running mate’s qualifications. It seems to me that you are looking for a method of vetting your next Realtor. And wisely so; my own mother has commented on the fact that I’m both a Realtor and an attorney — neither of which ranks high on the general public’s trusted professions meter. As the saying goes, though, the third time’s a charm — there are a number of ways you can empower yourself to avoid drama with your real estate representative the next time you buy or sell.

Mindset Management

The single most important thing you can do to get a Realtor with whom you will be happy is not to vet them but, rather, to find and select candidates for the job of your Realtor by referral in the first place. There’s no art to this — just ask your family members, friends, or colleagues who have similar likes and dislikes or who bought homes in the same general area as you are looking (a) whether they loved their Realtor, and if so, (b) for their Realtor’s name and contact information.

It sounds like you might suffer from a case of real estate post-traumatic stress disorder; as such, you might need someone who is very skilled at both real estate and client care. That’s why I want you to get your referral from someone who loved their Realtor, not someone who just thought their real estate agent was so-so or adequate.

If you have a hard time finding such a rave review, consider attending homebuyer seminars presented by local Realtors — that’s another good way to get a live-and-in-person read on the flavor of person the Realtor might be, in a way you just can’t from their Web site. You’ll need to feel comfortable revealing your family’s living preferences, your personal financials and other confidential information to this person — as well as spending a great deal of your off time with them, so a personality fit is critical.

Need-to-Knows

All Realtors are not created equal. In the marketplace, you’ll run into Realtors with high school diplomas all the way to Realtors who are attorneys, CPAs and MBAs. While I think education is important, I’ve met and worked with very skilled Realtors with lower levels of formal education, but they tend to have years of experience selling homes. Get a grasp on your prospective representatives’ entire educational and experiential background, during one of your first conversations, to ensure that you have a comfort level in their ability to represent you, from a competence standpoint.

The big-name, big-jewelry-wearing Realtor with all the billboards may or may not be the right fit for you; if you think you might need more handholding, the rainmaker type may not have the time to comfort a higher-maintenance client. What you need is someone who has:

  • a basic level of real estate competence or better (10 or more real estate transactions in the last two years);
  • access to expert advice from their manager or broker, if it becomes necessary (if they are relatively inexperienced); and
  • superior listening, client education, negotiation and communication powers

Additionally, some clarifications are in order. You asked about Realtors, but used the term in lower case, so I’m not certain whether you recognize that there is a difference between a real estate agent and a Realtor. A real estate agent or broker is simply a person who holds your state’s license to represent a buyer or seller of real estate.

Both agents and brokers can be Realtors — licensed real estate professionals who belong to the National Association of Realtors. For a real estate licensee to become a Realtor is quite costly, financially. As such, the Realtor designation reflects a licensee’s commitment to professionalism and the Realtor Code of Ethics, which was adopted in 1913 and patterned after the medical, legal and engineering professions’ ethical codes.

Your biggest complaint was that your last two real estate agents "did not represent (your) interests." Not coincidentally, the very first Article of the Realtor Code of Ethics, as summarized in the Realtor’s Pledge of Performance and Service, proclaims that "Realtors protect and promote their clients’ interests, while treating all parties honestly." Not to sound like a commercial for Realtors, but as someone who has taught ethics to real estate professionals, I can tell you that the average Realtor takes their pledge of putting their clients’ interests above their own very seriously. Most Realtors who have been in business a few years can cite several examples in which prioritizing their clients’ interests cost them time and/or money, but they did it anyway. In fact, as part of your vetting process, you might want to ask your prospective Realtor if they have any such examples they can relate to you!

Also, I’m curious as to what specifically happened that left you feeling your interests were not being represented. Homebuyers often have multiple interests that contradict each other. For instance, you want a particular home, but you also want to pay as little as possible for it. Your Realtor might advise you to offer more than you want to, because he or she has information that the higher offer is the only way you have a chance at actually obtaining the property. I’ve been known to remind my bargain-hunting buyer clients that we’re not successful by just making a slick, lowball offer — we’re successful only if we actually get the home! Along the same lines, I’ve seen sellers get upset with Realtors who insist that they disclose a certain flaw, or ask them to complete a particular repair, or advise them to return a buyer’s earnest money deposit. The seller feels sold out, while the Realtor knows that helping their client get the deal closed, while avoiding later lawsuits, is all part of their job.

I don’t want to minimize your concerns, but I do want you to be aware that sometimes a good Realtor has to say or do things that their client doesn’t like, in order to guard that client’s overarching best interests. Next go-round, prioritize finding a Realtor who can communicate clearly with you when they are telling you news or giving you advice that is in your best interests to know, even if it’s not what you want to hear.

Action Plan

1. Locate prospective Realtors by seeking referrals from friends who had a Realtor they "loved."

2. Check your state Department of Real Estate’s Web site to confirm that your prospective Realtor is licensed and complaint/discipline-free. The vast majority of licensees have no record of problems, so don’t stop here.

3. Check with your prospective Realtor and/or their local association of Realtors to ensure that they are, in fact, a member of that association.

4. Meet with the Realtor candidate to get a feel for whether your personalities are a fit, and ask them about experiences they’ve had in which they prioritized their clients’ interests at their own detriment. Also, check consumer rating sites like Yelp.com and ask the Realtor directly for additional client references and testimonials.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.

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