(REUTERS) -- When you're looking to buy or sell a home, naturally you want to find a real estate agent with integrity and your best interests in mind. You don't need a new best friend, but you do need someone you genuinely like because you are about to spend a lot of time in their presence. You can start by asking friends, family or neighbors - especially ones that have bought or sold a home in the past year - for recommendations.
You want an agent who is very familiar with the neighborhood. It's harder to find someone who understands your tastes (will your Danish modern table look good in the dining room?) and needs (Starbuck's within a five-minute drive). We all know someone who has spent endless hours driving around with a chatty, over-perfumed agent only to end up looking at houses that are not suitable for the family dog.
Finding an agent who can assist in the onerous transaction process is just as crucial. They should be able to recommend a mortgage broker and real estate lawyer to get the deal done. Knowledge of the latest trends in mortgage loan products and property taxes are certainly helpful, too.
Once you obtain a few names, set up an interview with each agent that should last about 30 minutes. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) recommends asking the following questions before committing to working with a Realtor:
How long have you been working in residential real estate sales? Is it your full-time job? Real estate, like many other professions, is mostly learned on the job. And keep in mind that experience is not a guarantee that the person is successful.
What are your credentials? The agent should be licensed by your state, which means the agent has met minimum levels of education, training, and testing. Designations such as GRI (Graduate Realtors Institute) and CRS (Certified Residential Specialist), which require that real estate professionals take additional, specialized real estate training, are held by only about one-quarter of real estate pros.
How many homes did you sell in the last year? How many homes did you find for buyers? Ask the agent for the addresses and selling prices for the homes bought and sold recently.
How many days did it take you to sell the average home? How did that compare to the overall market? This information also determines the agent's track record of marketing homes. Remember that real estate markets vary by location. For example, properties in desirable metropolitan neighborhoods might stay on the market for just one or two weeks, while homes in other areas of the country might take a month to sell. Make sure the Realtor's record is in line with local conditions.
How close to the initial asking prices of the homes you sold were the final sale prices? If there are very large discrepancies between asking and final sale prices, ask for the reasons behind that. As a seller, you should listen to the agent's advice about what the competitive price is so that you're not pricing your home too high. When you're a buyer, the realtor will provide the current price ranges for that local market. And it's not always just about price. Agents need to know how fast you're able to close the deal. And in the stringent lending environment, they also want to know if you're pre-approved for a mortgage.
When I'm selling my home, what types of marketing approaches will you use? Look for someone who has aggressive, innovative approaches beyond fresh-baked cookies. You don't want someone who's going to put a sign in the yard and hope for the best.
Will you represent me exclusively, or will you represent both the buyer and the seller in the transaction? Dual representation is allowed in certain states and has to be disclosed by the agent. Make sure the agent represents only your interests.
Can you help me find service providers to get a mortgage, make repairs on my home, and other things I need done? Real estate professionals should generally recommend more than one provider and should tell you if they receive any compensation from any of them.
How will you keep me informed about listings or sale of my home? Decide how you want to communicate - email or phone or personal visit - and how often. You can also discuss and establish goals and expectations, such as how many properties you want to see each week or what services or technical support you might need from the agent.
Finally, references are crucial. Ask for the names and phone numbers of the agent's three most recent clients. Make sure to call these references to find out their experience with the agent.