In tough times, most people are looking to cut costs any way they can. And in a home purchase, who wouldn't want to save that extra 3 percent -- an extra $3,000 per $100,000 of the sale price? That's typically what buyer's agents make on real estate transactions, and most experts think it's money well spent.
It's true that anyone can shop for a house, and even get a peek inside, without formally signing on with a real estate agent. But unless you have time to make home shopping a part-time job, an agent might be able to match you with the perfect property much faster.
Say you want a swimming pool. Or don't want a swimming pool. Or maybe you want a fenced-in yard for the dog or a basement playroom for the kids. If you're looking for something specific, a real estate agent is the person whose job it is to know if there's a house out there to fit your needs, and he or she will hold your hand through the deal to boot. Let's look at some of the top benefits of using an agent to buy a home.
Though not all real estate agents are members of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), those who do join the group agree to abide by a code of ethics. That code essentially stipulates that Realtors deal with all parties of a transaction honestly.
Under the code, the Realtor is obligated to put the clients' interests ahead of his own. He or she is also required to make full disclosure about the problems with a property and be truthful in advertising.
The code of ethics has some teeth; local boards governed by the NAR enforce the provisions. Penalties can include a $5,000 fine, a one-year suspension from the association or a three-year expulsion. How frequently this happens is unclear. Because local boards handle enforcement actions, no national statistics on penalties against Realtors are available [source: National Association of Realtors].
Most real estate agents can set a price on a home the minute they walk through the door. If they have a lot of experience in a market, they know how well a neighborhood holds its value, too.
While anyone can spend a few minutes online and pull information on sales of comparable houses, real estate agents have the experience to know whether a specific house is overpriced or underpriced. In the best-case scenario, an agent will have such a good idea of what you're looking for that she won't even waste your time touring houses that won't work.
Not only can agents provide all the data on local home sales that you want to see, but they can also bring assets to the deal that come from years of watching waves of transactions in the neighborhood.
Often, the touchiest part of a real estate purchase involves the delicate dance of requesting repairs. A real estate agent will be able to identify trouble that you may not see, as well as recommend a good independent home inspector who will provide a detailed report on problems with the house.
These reports can be dozens of pages long. Within all those pages, some problems are important and others aren't. If the house is in reasonably good condition, requests for repairs can make or break a deal. The agent will have a good sense of what's reasonable to request and what's excessive.
In many cases, it depends on you as the buyer, too. An agent can read the situation and suggest what would work for you. "Each buyer has a different tolerance for what they need to do," says Elizabeth Mendenhall, the 2011 vice president of committees for the National Association of Realtors. "Some need [a house] to be in a better condition."
Finding Available Homes
Though most homes for sale are widely available for buyers to assess on Web sites, in some cases, sellers don't want the fact that they're selling to be widely publicized. In those cases, only the real estate agents know the houses are for sale.
"Sometimes people don't want it advertised actively," Mendenhall says. "Maybe it's a more for personal reason, that they don't want their neighbors or friends to know that their house is for sale."
Sometimes health problems, financial problems or divorce factor into the need for privacy. Or sometimes, people don't want the sale advertised during the holidays. Either way, working with a real estate agent gives you access to homes you might otherwise miss seeing.
Tackling the Paperwork
If you've ever bought a house, you've probably dedicated a full shelf somewhere to the documents that were involved in the transaction. These probably include the written offer, the written and signed counteroffer, the little details (like specific repairs) and what exactly was and was not included in the sale. The paperwork can be tiresome.
This is when a good real estate agent can save the day. Often, these offers and counteroffers are limited by a time frame. The agents are armed with fax machines that, in good economies, never stop churning out paper.
The odds of missing something, not initialing a margin or not checking a box, can drop substantially when you're working with someone who knows the paperwork inside and out.
The "Purple Room" Phenomenon
Aside from the technical aspects of a sale and the mistakes people can make in the paperwork, real estate agents know neighborhoods and houses inside and out.
Mendenhall calls it the "purple room" phenomenon. If a buyer wants a house with a purple room, she says, the experienced real estate agent will know the house that's for sale that has that room.
In a more general way, an agent will be aware of features that don't show as well on the Internet. If a buyer is looking for a house with a space that could be used as an office, an attached mother-in-law unit or a room that's perfect for showing off a prized grandfather clock, a human agent is more likely to find a match than a real estate Web site.
As levelheaded as you think you are, when you're fighting with a seller over adding a hose to the dishwasher because the water drains on the floor, it's easy to lose your cool. Having an agent to write the requests objectively and forward them to the seller saves you the trouble of getting overly emotional about the deal.
Say the seller won't budge on the dishwasher hose and you want to adjust your offer. The agent can handle that part calmly, too. Experts advise that you let the agent take the heat in difficult negotiations.
The best way to make a deal is to look for the positive part of every offer and counteroffer, and never let the other party see you make a sour face. Often, the most effective way to do that is to present the face that's doing business -- not your own.
If you want to buy a charming little house near a business district and turn the front parlor into a candle store, you need to know if the city will allow it. Typically, an experienced real estate agent is familiar enough with local zoning ordinances to make sure you don't buy the wrong house.
By the same token, if you want to build a fence in the backyard or add a bedroom, an agent should be able to make sure you're buying a property where the city allows it. Also, some cities may require expensive upgrades on older properties when they sell. For example, if a house isn't connected to the city's sewer system, and a buyer will be required to spend tens of thousands of dollars to connect the property, the real estate agent will make sure that requirement is disclosed before the deal goes very far.
Thorough Record Keeping
Although real estate agents aren't lawyers, they can serve as good resources years after a deal is closed. In some states, licensed agents are required to keep full files of all documents in all transactions for several years.
While you may (and should) keep files yourself, you can count on your agent to keep that information organized and safeguarded should trouble crop up with the property in years to come. You'll also be able to contact your agent at any time in the coming years should you have questions about the property yourself.
Avoiding Closing Problems
When a sale nears closing, all kind of pitfalls can kill the deal in the final hours. A real estate agent knows to watch for trouble before it's too late.
For example, the title of the house may not be clear -- some long-lost relative might be listed on the title who hasn't signed off on the sale. Or maybe the lender is causing a problem by not meeting the timeline on financing.
"When you're getting close to the closing, you want to make sure there aren't any unexpected title issues, that the financing has come through and that all of the professionals involved are staying on task and on timeline," Mendenhall says. Real estate agents are used to dealing with these types of issues and can work through almost any challenge that arises.
For more information on buying a home, check out the links on the next page.
Most homeowners insurance won't cover your home if you're renting it via sites like Airbnb. HowStuffWorks looks at insurance policies that will.
- Cummings, Jack. "The Real Estate Investor's Answer Book: Moneymaking Solutions to ALL Your Real Estate Questions." McGraw-Hill Professional. 2006.
- Mendenhall, Elizabeth. Vice President of Committees. National Association of Realtors. Personal interview. Jan. 3, 2011.
- National Association of Realtors. "Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®." Jan. 1. 2010. (Dec. 22, 2010)http://www.realtor.org/MemPolWeb.nsf/pages/COde
- Richmond, Peter. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying a Home." Alpha Publishing. 2010.
- Udelson, Steve. CEO. Owners.com. Personal interview. Jan. 4, 2011.