A real estate agent is called upon to help people who are involved in what is probably the biggest financial deal in their lives: buying or selling a home. The stakes are high, and having an expert in their corner can help reduce stress and get a better result. But is that expert worth the price?
Real Estate Agent, Realtor, and Broker: What’s the Difference?
Right out of the gate, things can get confusing, especially for a first-time homebuyer. Real estate agents, Realtors, and brokers are all real estate professionals who have earned licenses to help people buy and sell property, so what's the difference?
Real Estate Agents
These pros can specialize in representing either buyers or sellers or can do both.
A buyer agent can help buyers figure out what they want in a house and a neighborhood, then arrange for their clients to visit homes. They help negotiate the price and overcome setbacks. They often recommend appraisers, home inspectors, title companies, and movers.
For home sellers, agents help determine the asking price. Then, they'll "put the home on the market" by getting it on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). They do other marketing and help get the listing ready to be seen in its best light (called staging). And these listing agents also can lead negotiations.
A Realtor is a real estate agent who has joined the National Association of Realtors, a trade association. In doing so, they agree to follow the NAR ethics code.
Real estate agents and Realtors can become brokers by passing an exam and earning a special license. Brokers often manage real estate agencies. Real estate agents work through brokers and agencies, but brokers can work independently on deals.
Does the Real Estate Agent Work for Me?
Home sellers typically are asked to sign an agreement with an agent to handle the sale, setting the commission and other terms for a fixed amount of time. Here's a tip: Read the agreement closely, and consider that everything in real estate is negotiable.
Homebuyers are asked to sign a Buyer Representation Agreement, formalizing their relationship.
Real estate agents don't get paid until a deal is closed. So the contracts assure that they won't spend a great deal of time and money helping a client, only to have that client ditch them at the last minute so their brother-in-law can close out the deal for little or nothing.
Do the lucky folks who are both selling their home and buying a new one need separate agents for each deal? Good arguments can be made either way. A lot will depend on how much they know and trust the agent and the agent's expertise.
However, beware of having the same agent represent the seller and buyer in one sale. That's called "dual agency," and it's illegal in several states because of the conflicts of interest. For example, how can the dual agent get the highest price for the seller and the lowest price for the buyer at the same time?
Who Pays the Real Estate Agent?
The seller pays the agents on both sides from the proceeds of the sale. Of course, he or she probably factored the commission into the price of the home.
The standard real estate commission is 6% of the sale price, although commissions are negotiable. For a $500,000 home, the 6% commission is $30,000. The interested parties often split it this way:
- Listing agent: 1.5%, or $7,500
- Listing agent's broker: 1.5%, or $7,500
- Buyer's agent: 1.5%, or $7,500
- Buyer's agent's broker: 1.5%, or $7,500
This arrangement shows why it is important to trust your agent. The higher the sales price, the more they make. And if there is no deal, they get nothing for their efforts.
If you do a "for sale by owner" deal and the buyer has signed an agreement with a real estate agent, that agent will expect to be paid a commission by that owner unless some other arrangement has been negotiated.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Using a Real Estate Agent?
Keeping that commission money in their own pocket makes many people want to handle their own real estate transactions. Here are other factors in the pro column:
- You can deal with the seller or buyer directly, with no "middle-man."
- The seller is a family member or acquaintance, or you are doing a "for sale by owner" deal and don't need help finding a house.
- You want to buy a newly built home and can work directly with a builder.
- There's no need to worry about whether the appraiser or home inspector is working in your best interests.
- You are an FBI hostage negotiator or car salesman and need no help in negotiating a good deal.
And that leads to reasons to go with a real estate agent:
- They possess negotiation skills you can't come close to.
- Agents can stay cool when emotions run high. Sellers sometimes get insulted by low offers or requests for repairs. Buyers fall in love with a place and want to overpay.
- They know neighborhoods and markets better than you. As a result, they might set a higher asking price for your home than you would have, perhaps enough to offset you would save in commissions.
- A good agent will have contacts that can lead to buyers or sellers you would never find.
- Their practiced eyes can see red flags and potential strengths in a home that you would miss.
- They can save you a lot of time because they know real estate law, state-specific rules, and the rest of the process well.
What Are the Alternatives?
If you decide to go with “For Sale by Owner,” or FSBO, that doesn’t mean you must be completely on your own.
Another option for sellers is to make a flat-fee MLS agreement with a real estate broker to receive only the listing service that the agency provides. Note that the seller will still be expected to pay a buyer’s agent commission.
Homes sellers can also check out discount services that charge lower commissions or flat rates, such as Clever and Redfin.
What Is the Best Way to Find a Real Estate Agent?
First, buyers should dive into the wonderful world of mortgage rates and get pre-approved for a mortgage by a lender. Then they need to know their price range for houses and neighborhoods.
Real estate agents will immediately want to know that, and part of what an agent brings to the table is expertise on particular neighborhoods.
Ask friends, relatives, and other people your trust for recommendations. Then, check out the websites, social media presence, and online reviews.
Interview a few. This might be outside your comfort zone, so prepare ahead of time. Write down some questions you want to ask. It might help to pretend that you are a reporter interviewing the agent. You need to know:
- Are your schedules and communication styles a good match?
- Do they seem to be too busy to give you the attention you need?
- Do they have the experience and expertise you value? If, for example, you want a fixer-upper and they specialize in new homes, that's not a good fit.
Ask for references and check them out. You need to know:
- If you are selling, has the agent negotiated deals above the asking price?
- If you are buying, has the agent negotiated prices down or win other concessions from the seller?
- Was the agent accessible? How did he or she handle any surprises that came up?
Before you sign any agreement to have the agent represent you, read it over carefully. It’s never just boilerplate.
Negotiate on any item that you are not satisfied with. This is the time for sellers, in particular, to try to get that commission lowered.
Because you are considering a few agents and have not focused on just one, you will have a better negotiating position.
How to Work With a Real Estate Agent
Once you have signed with an agent or broker, consider yourself to be part of a team.
Keep the appointments that you make.
Follow your agent’s recommendation on the list price of your home. Or, if you are buying, on making offers. That’s a big part of what you are paying them for.
Heed your agent’s guidance on what you need to do to make your house more appealing to buyers.
Reach an understanding on open houses. Some will not want you to attend one without them. Some will be all right with it but want you to bring their business card to give to the selling agent.
Communicate. Be open and upfront about what you want. Ask questions. Don’t hold back, building up tension, when you can just ask a question or two and clear the air.
Ready to Work With a Real Estate Agent?
When the question is “Should I work with a real estate agent?” many of the answers revolve around your comfort level.
People who are not risk-takers, don’t feel confident in their knowledge of the real estate market, and are not comfortable negotiating probably should look for professional help in buying or selling a home.
Those who are comfortable relying on their own resources to pull off a complicated financial transaction successfully can set off on their own.
Need extra advice on buying or selling a home? Be sure to talk things over with friends and family on FamilyApp! They might have excellent tips and advice on people to work with (or avoid) during the homebuying process.