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How to Get What You Want from the Realtor

For Buyers Only
Unless you are working with an exclusive buyer's agent, the Realtor you engage has a legal responsibility to the seller, not to you. Her chief goal must be to get the price and terms the seller wants, even if she is supposedly negotiating on your behalf. This means that unless the sellers give their permission, the Realtor is not allowed to disclose personal information that might give you an edge – for example, revealing that the sellers are in the midst of a divorce. Your Realtor's commission is based on the sale price of the home, so it's natural to assume that she has a vested interest in parting you from as much money as she can. How are you going to trust someone with so many incentives in the other direction?

In reality, the situation is not as unfairly skewed as it seems. The money the Realtor stands to earn by advising you to increase your offer by, say, $5,000 is pretty small potatoes – about $75. It's hardly worth alienating you over that amount if you really disagree with her advice. After all, she is counting on you to recommend her to your family and friends so she can broaden her turf. However, there is no disputing the fact that she will be a dual agent representing both you and the seller, so be prudent in your negotiations. Don't fall for the standard line, "What are you willing to pay?" That information will go straight back to the seller, guaranteed.

If the conflict of interest doesn't sit well with you, you can always engage an exclusive buyer's agent. In most cases they earn a percentage of the commission, just as regular agents do. The main difference between the two is that the buyer's agent has a legal responsibility to the buyer, not the seller. She can (and should) dish all the dirt about the seller's circumstances, but she is not allowed to tell the seller any confidential information about you. Another advantage to using a buyer's agent is that they routinely show homes that are for sale "by owner" or "by builder," which seller's agents often neglect to do.

A buyer's agent will ask you to sign a contract just as any agent will. The same rules apply – don't agree to an exclusive arrangement for longer than 60 to 90 days. Read the fine print carefully, and pay special attention to the payment options – for instance, will you owe the Realtor a commission if you buy directly from a homeowner? How much will that commission be? The contract is negotiable, so take your time and ask all the questions you like, of the agent and of any other knowledgeable folks you have access to.

For Sellers Only
There are a few things to be particularly aware of if you are choosing a Realtor to help you sell your house. First on that list, obviously, is the person's salesmanship. A good way to evaluate the skill of a few Realtors is to go to some open houses without letting on that you're searching for a Realtor. Lurk around for a while and see how they relate to the public. Are they warm and natural, putting people at ease? Do they try to find out what the buyer is looking for so they can tailor pertinent information? Do they know how to emphasize the home's strengths, pointing out areas that a buyer might not have noticed? Do they show a general knowledge of structural and inspection issues that would lead a buyer to trust them? Do they seem genuinely enthusiastic about the property? It takes a clever person to point out the details and promise in a home, particularly if it has been well lived in. A sagging red velour couch or mustard-colored carpet can be off-putting, and the good Realtor will know how to guide the buyer's eye to the finer points. That's the person you want.

Another strategy for finding a Realtor to market your home is to drive around your own neighborhood and look at the For Sale signs. You'll usually find the same few Realtors' names again and again because they tend to specialize in certain neighborhoods. Not only do you want to see the names, you also want to see those "sold" signs.

As you narrow your search for a Realtor, be sure to ask about the following issues.

Marketing. The Realtor should be able to give you, in writing, the marketing plan for selling your house. The plan should include how and where it will be advertised, whether open houses are part of the plan, and when the home will be shown. (Only about 1 percent of homes are sold through open houses, so private viewings are essential.) The plan should also give an estimate of how long the Realtor believes it will take your home to sell. If the home does not sell within that period, what changes in strategy will the Realtor suggest?

Costs. Will the marketing plan include advertising expenses that must be paid by you? (This is not usually the case, but it doesn't hurt to ask.) If so, agree on a budget. Find out if there are any other costs that may come up in the negotiation process, such as repairs or closing costs paid by the seller. If you are not willing to incur any additional costs, make sure the Realtor knows that at the start so the costs are not used as a negotiating tool.

The neighborhood. A good working knowledge of the neighborhood is just as essential when you are selling as when you are buying. That information should include the average price of homes selling in your area and the average length of time on the market. Find out the difference between the asking price and the actual selling price of recently sold homes. Ask the Realtor how many homes in your neighborhood she has closed on in the last three months. If the answer is zero, there better be a good reason before you select this particular Realtor.

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From Say the Magic Words by Lynette Padwa. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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