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Meet your match: Finding the perfect (real estate) partner

You’ve heard it before: Buying a home is one of the biggest financial transactions you’ll ever make. Talk about pressure.

Before you proceed to make that weighty decision, if you’re like most buyers, you’ll first want to decide on a real estate agent who will help you through the process.

Why use an agent?

A 2013 survey from the National Association of Realtors reveals that 88 percent of buyers in the previous year purchased their home through a real estate agent or broker. Especially for first-timers, a trusted, knowledgeable ally can reduce stress and leave buyers feeling confident.

While buyers can browse Internet sites for listings, realtors still have a first look at available properties. "Realtors have access to the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), which gives them access to the latest information," said John Leonardi, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors. He also said that realtors will often bring homeowners a better sales price than those sold by owner - up to $20,000 more, on average.

Getting choosy

It’s important to shop around before settling on a real estate agent. Referrals from family and friends are a good starting point, Leonardi said.

“Interview three or four agents, have them give you proposals and tell you what programs they offer,” Leonardi said.

“Then, go with your gut.”

Note that the top real estate agent might not always be the best fit. Leonardi said that feeling comfortable with an agent is key.

Conversely, a buyer should be wary of picking a professional simply because they are friends or family. There needs to be a balance of personal connection and professional experience, as well as room for honesty.

Staying (hyper) local

The most valuable real estate agent is one who is familiar with the specific market in which the buyer is looking, Leonardi said. Look at "for sale" signs around the neighborhood for potential leads, and consider someone who may even live in the area, as he or she knows it best.

But geography shouldn't be the only deciding factor.

Ultimately, Leonardi said to base your decision on who will give you the best service.

Five questions to ask a potential real estate agent

How do you know if a real estate agent is the right fit? Real estate professionals recommend you start by asking these questions:

1. Why are you a real estate agent?
It's helpful to get a gauge of why they do it — beyond money. “I believe most real estate agents do it because they love the profession,” said John Leonardi, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors. “They're driven to be successful, but I also believe they enjoy making peoples' lives complete.”

2. Will you be representing me, the seller, exclusively?
For agents representing both the buyer and the seller, it can be difficult to get the optimal price for both parties. “If I sell my own listing, I'm the seller's agent,” said Susie Lenahan of M.J. Peterson. “No one is happy with a dual agent.”

3. How will you market the property?
Different agents have different strategies, including where the home is advertised and when and how open houses are conducted. Find out what tools are in your agent's wheelhouse.

4. How will your price my home?
The highest price shouldn't necessarily be your barometer, however; houses priced too far above market value ultimately won't sell. Once you choose an agent, listen to his or her pricing recommendation, which is based on prior knowledge and comparable sales data. “The biggest pitfall is not listening to your agent. They know the market,” said Leonardi.

5. How will you keep me updated throughout this process? By phone or text message?
Setting these expectations will keep both parties happy. Also, many local realty companies have programs in place that offer immediate feedback to sellers after each showing, such as M.J. Peterson's “Centralized Showing Service” database.

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