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A good buyer's agent can act as a guide on your homebuying journey. They'll show you properties that fit your criteria, help you craft a competitive offer, negotiate on your behalf and generally provide you with knowledge and support throughout the homebuying process. And P.S. — you don't pay them. Here's what you should know about working with a buyer's agent.
What is a buyer's agent?
A buyer's agent is a real estate professional who represents the purchaser's interests in a real estate transaction. They play a different role from the listing agent, who represents the property's seller.
Most residential real estate agents work with both buyers and sellers. For example, when someone is selling their current home and buying a new one, they'll often use a single agent who will be their listing agent for the home sale and act as buyer's agent on their home purchase.
Some home shoppers might think they can take a shortcut to making an offer on a home by working with the home’s listing agent instead of hiring a buyer's agent. But home buyers and sellers have inherently distinct goals, especially when it comes to negotiating a purchase price. Having the listing agent represent you as a buyer is an example of dual agency, which is illegal in some states and at the very least creates a conflict of interest. You want your own buyer's agent who's firmly on your side.
What a buyer's agent does
A buyer's agent guides you through the homebuying process — from house hunting to closing. Among other things, a good buyer’s agent will:
Find homes for sale. A buyer's agent will help you understand the type of home you can afford in the current market, find listed homes that match your needs and price range, and then help you narrow the options to the properties worth considering. Additionally, a buyer's agent will dig up additional information on any listings that you find and forward their way. With access to the Multiple Listing Service, agents can see more information than you can using real estate websites and apps.
Know the area inside and out. If you're not a local, a buyer's agent can provide you with the inside scoop on schools, neighborhoods and more. Even if you're from the area, they may be able to provide you with details about zoning or taxes that you might not know about.
Set up tours. Scrolling through listing photos just isn't the same as viewing a property in person. Your agent will work with a home's listing agent or owners (if the property is for sale by owner) to schedule showings. They'll also fill you in on anything they learned about the sellers or the property from that communication.
Help you make offers. After you've found a home you want to buy, your agent will advise you on how much to offer and what contingencies to include in the contract, based on the property and an analysis of the market. A good agent will explain the contract terms, answer your questions and walk you through each step of the process.
Negotiate with the seller. The agent will inform you of the seller's response to your offer and advise you on the next steps, such as whether to accept a seller's counteroffer or negotiate on price and terms.
Last, a good buyer's agent will help you weather the highs and lows of the homebuying process. In addition to being a major financial transaction, buying a home often gets pretty emotional. If you're feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, you can lean on your agent. If there's an issue with the sellers or negotiations become frustrating, you should be able to rely on your agent to keep calm and help you get the best possible outcome.
How a buyer's agent gets paid
The seller usually pays the real estate agent commission, which is split between the listing agent and the buyer's agent. A typical real estate commission is 5% to 6% of the home's sale price. Who pays will be made clear in the purchase agreement, which both buyer and seller have to sign once an offer is accepted.
Even though as a home buyer you don't pay the buyer's agent, you will sign a contract with them. The contract may outline the scope of their duties as well as stipulate how long you'll work exclusively with them. Check this time period before you sign; it's usually negotiable and can be as little as 30 days.
It's in the agent's interest to have you commit — since if you buy a home with a different buyer's agent, they won't get paid regardless of the work they may have put in. But you may want to ask for a guarantee request, which basically allows you (or the agent) to leave the relationship if it's just not working.
» MORE: Real estate agent basics
How to find a buyer's agent
First things first: Shop for a lender and get preapproved for a mortgage before you select a real estate agent. A mortgage preapproval is a letter from a lender showing the loan amount and terms you qualify for. Getting preapproved shows real estate agents and sellers that you're a serious buyer.
Once you have a preapproval letter, it's time to look for an agent. Here's how to find one.
Ask for agent referrals from people you trust. If you're moving to a new city, request referrals from any contacts you have there. Future colleagues can point you in the right direction if you're relocating for a new job, for example. Be sure to ask how they know the agent. You want a positive referral based on a recent home sale, not a friend of a friend who's in the real estate business.
» MORE: How to buy a house sight unseen
You can also look at real estate agents' online profiles and reviews. If you're looking for an agent who has a particular type of experience or who operates in a specific area, this criterion can help you narrow your search from just "buyer's agents near me."
Professional organizations can also help you find local agents. The National Association of Realtors is the largest in the U.S.; agents that are members get to call themselves Realtors. There are other trade associations that are more specific, too. The National Association of Real Estate Brokers places an emphasis on housing equality and social justice. NAREB members are designated as Realtists.
Check experience and training
Whether or not they're affiliated with a national organization, all real estate agents must be licensed by the state where they operate. Check out your potential buyer's agent online to be sure they hold an active license; in addition to passing an initial exam, agents must undergo continuing education to maintain licensure. You can verify licensing by searching any agent's name on your state government's website.
Looking up licensing information also allows you to see how long a buyer's agent has held a real estate license. Especially if you're a first-time home buyer, you probably want someone with some experience under their belt.
Interview buyer's agents and check references
Once you've found a few agents who seem like a good fit, ask to set up a meet-and-greet so you can informally interview them. If an agent doesn't want to make time for this, or you don't get a great vibe from them in your one-on-one, keep moving. Buying a home is a major transaction and can be a lengthy process, so you want an agent who will be committed to you and who you'll be comfortable working with for the long haul.
Here are some questions you can ask:
Availability and schedule. Are they a full-time agent, or is real estate a side hustle? Ideally, you want the former. If you need to drop everything and see a house right away or if something comes up just before closing, your agent should be there to sort it out.
Communication and working style. Do they prefer phone or text? Will you work directly with the agent or with the agent's assistants? How often can you expect to hear from them? These details reveal a lot about working styles, so you can choose the agent with an approach that fits your needs.
House hunting. How will the agent find listed homes in your price range? What strategies do they use to guide buyers through a competitive market? What neighborhoods or towns do they work in the most? Ask how the agent helped other buyers like you find homes.
Making offers and negotiating. How will the agent help you make competitive offers and negotiate with sellers? What challenges could you face in your local market? A good agent will set realistic expectations.
Thoughts and feels. An agent may have all the qualifications on paper to be successful but might not be right for you. Does the agent's interpersonal style mesh with yours? Is this someone you could trust to look out for your interests? Good rapport can matter as much as the agent's experience and competence.
Last, don't be shy about asking for references. Request the names of a few clients who recently purchased a home with them, and contact those customers to ask about their experiences. Something could come up that will prompt you to keep looking — or confirm that you've found the right buyer's agent for you.