Most of the time when I work with a real estate client, it is with someone who is a first time homebuyer. This isn't surprising, since there aren't a whole lot of people who do multiple real estate transactions in their lifetimes. The vast majority of people only do this once or twice. This series of posts is for those of you who are entering the home buying process for the first time, or for anyone who wants a refresher.
Keep in mind that real estate transactions vary considerably between states, so this is advice that is specific to Massachusetts. The Commonwealth has a very helpful consumer fact sheet that explains the different types of agents as well as several other aspects of the home buying process. Agents are required to present you with this information when we first meet with you. This is done on a standard form, which you can review here (pdf link).
What does an agent do for you?
Buying real estate is a complicated, time-consuming process filled with legal implications and fraught with emotion. It is because these transactions are both complex and (on an individual level) rare that agents are still useful. If it were easy, you wouldn't need us. But there's no law that says you have to use an agent. If you want to go it alone, it's well within your rights.
Unfortunately, buying real estate isn't easy. In fact, the longer I work in the field, the more I appreciate just how difficult it is. Every property is unique. Every buyer is unique. Every seller is unique. Each transaction involves multiple professionals like home inspectors, lenders, and attorneys, and someone has to coordinate them all. And that's before you get into the paperwork. Having a dedicated buyer's agent in your corner relieves you of having to figure all of these details out. And unlike a seller's agent, who has a fiduciary duty to the seller, a buyer's agent can recommend professionals like home inspectors and attorneys.
On top of all that, overlay general market conditions. A decade ago, the market was in a free fall and buyers were scarce. Today, bidding wars are the norm and even the most well-heeled buyers can find themselves on the losing end. A buyer's agent will help you structure an offer to be competitive given current market conditions, advising not just on total price but on down payments, lender selection, key dates in the process, which contingencies to ask for in the offer, whether or not to use an escalation clause, and more.
All of these technical details - knowing which lenders to call, how to structure a winning offer, who to call for the variety of inspections that might need to take place, how to get insurance, how to properly fill out paperwork, etc. - are crucial. In a transaction this large, you need someone dedicated to managing these things, and that's a huge part of what an agent does.
But more than that, a successful agent is there to help people through surprisingly emotional decisions. Real estate, more than any other thing that we buy and sell, is personal. When you buy a piece of property for your personal residence, you are making a set of decisions about your life and lifestyle, and these decisions aren't always easy. Often, they involve taking action on things that you may have been putting off for a long time. People often decide to buy a home as part of a larger life change like starting a family, moving in with a partner, or taking in an aging parent. Buying a home can also mean moving to a new neighborhood or town, which comes with another layer of stress.
As much as the technical details matter in transactions, I often think that being a real estate agent is really about being a therapist who happens to know a lot about houses. A good agent may end up talking you through what it means to be a homeowner when what that means is also being a parent, being a loving partner, or navigating some other type of major life event. And that's really what an agent is there for: to help you through a difficult, complicated, stressful decision.
Don't forget that the seller is usually just as stressed, anxious, and exhausted, often for the same reasons. It took me a few transactions to figure out that one of the key roles of real estate agents is to keep two parties that aren't in the best frame of mind apart from each other to prevent emotions from running amok and deals from falling apart. In many ways, agents act as a buffer to help absorb the stress of the transaction and to help clients figure out which things are worth making a fuss over and which they should let go.
How do you choose an agent (and should it be me)?
Most of the time, my clients find me after they have already started looking at houses online or visiting open houses. Often, they have talked to several different agents already. This is fine! But since agents work on commission it's important that you settle on one before you get too far into your search. Many agents will ask you to sign an agreement promising not to work with someone else. I don't do this, because I never want you to feel stuck working with me. But I do verbally ask all of my clients to tell me if they aren't happy with my services for any reason and ask them not to work with anyone else simultaneously.
Choosing an agent doesn't have to be complex, but it should be done with some thought. You have to open up a lot to your agent. You want someone you can trust. You will be discussing financial details with them about your savings, earnings, and debt that you might not ordinarily tell anyone else, and they may have to give you some hard truths about what (or where) you can afford. You need to talk about your future plans for family and jobs with them honestly. You need someone who is willing to work with you to find a condo with soundproof walls so you can play late-night accordion, someone who can get to know you well enough to advise you for or against doing a kitchen renovation while you live in the house, someone who will understand your need to have a dedicated art-making space and not ask you to give that up. You may also end up spending a lot of time with this person looking at houses on the weekend, so it's worth thinking about whether or not you actually enjoy their company.
Ideally, you should talk to a few agents, but sometimes you find someone you just click with right away. It's OK to go with your gut, but do make sure that they have some experience and are reputable. You can check their license here. If someone is giving you the hard sell to be your agent, ask yourself why and whether or not that person will give you honest advice during the buying process.
Agents usually have particular areas they specialize in, both geographically and topically. I'm happy to work anywhere in Greater Boston, but I have developed expertise in Fort Hill, Roxbury, where I live, and in Somerville and Medford, where many of my friends live. I also know JP and Mission Hill quite well. Outside of geography, I've gotten pretty good at working with artists and creative people, who may have unique needs for their living spaces. And I try to keep abreast of green/energy-efficient building practices. I also have experience in being a landlord, living through major renovations, and owning and caring for historic homes, all of which can be useful.
A lot of agents put a premium on the number of transactions or dollar volumes they've done. I always find that to be a strange selling point. Sure, they need to know what they are doing, but after a point the number of transactions you have been a part of ceases to matter. A real estate agent is supposed to be a trusted advisor, and what matters is less the quantity of their work than the quality, followed closely by your ability to relate to them. I typically try to work with only 1 or 2 clients at a time so that I can give them my undivided attention. I only close a handful of transactions a year, but that is by design.
Like most agents, I find a lot of clients from my social groups. Sometimes these are close friends, but doing business with close friends isn't always the best idea. Buying a home can be intensely emotional and stressful, and that can damage a friendship. Over the years, I've gotten more selective about who I will work with as a client. Some of my closest friends are people who wouldn't be great for me to work with, and that's fine. Other friends are great matches for my style of advisory services and working with them only deepens the friendship. The best advice I can give is to trust your gut. A good friendship is worth far more than a commission.
Hopefully, reading through these blog posts will give you a sense of my style and my particular areas of expertise. If you think we'd be a good match, I'd love to hear from you. But even if you choose someone else to be your agent, I hope these posts are helpful to you.