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10 Signs an Agent Is No Good at Selling Houses

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You liked the agent, you listed the house and then you never saw her again.

If she hasn't broken the terms of your contract, you're stuck with her until that three- or six-month contract ends.

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The key here is that if you don't want to end up stuck with an agent who doesn't have the skills to sell your house, you can ask a fair number of questions up front. You can -- and should -- write your expectations into the contract. And if you find an agent who's unwilling to alter that preprinted form for you to sign, then find someone who will.

It's hard to sell a house right now. Credit is tight, prices are falling and sellers have had to bring down their expectations rapidly in the last few years. Further, if you're trying to do a short sale, you need someone who has the experience to negotiate price with several parties who may be holding different parts of the loan that's in trouble.

Asking questions like these can help: Can I have some references? Have you ever negotiated a short sale? When was the last time you sold a house?

For more specific methods of evaluating an agent, read on.

Granted, this is an obvious bad sign, and it's the first of many you may see if you're in a contract with an agent who's overwhelmed or disorganized.

The key here is that you should be able to see this coming to some degree.

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If you've made the effort to interview two or three agents before you signed a contract, then you've already seen how quickly most agents return messages and how well they listened to your concerns.

Like professionals in any business, you can see a real range of behaviors from the outset. While one agent may return a voice mail after a couple of days and engage in a matter-of-fact conversation, another agent may answer the phone on the first try and then send a thoughtful letter to follow up the next day.

It's like hiring anyone for any type of job, whether it's roofing, babysitting or bookkeeping. But this hire involves getting the best return on the biggest purchase you've ever made.

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While it's typical for real estate agents to come to a meeting with a contract in hand, don't be dazzled by the length and scope of that contract. The document you sign should be as much yours as it is the agent's. It's easy to be baffled by a long document, but the terms of every contract are negotiable. And when you're selling your No. 1 investment, your wishes belong in that contract.

A performance clause can be very simple. You can ask that if no buyers have requested to see the house in the course of the month, then the agent must schedule an open house. If you want to make sure the house is shown, you need to be specific about how often you want it shown and what constitutes a showing.

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If an agent, in that initial interview, declines to give you an exit from the contract on the basis of his performance, then you might want to keep looking.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB), a nonprofit consumer organization, keeps complaints about agents on file, and typically, the top complaint involves sellers who expected their agents to show the house more than they did.

Most states have licensing provisions for real estate agents, and the BBB provides one more resource for doing your homework before signing a contract. Just navigate through the Web site, and you can see the bureau's rating as well as the details on any complaints filed against the business.

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"If we've got complaints, you'll be able to see that report online," says Sheryl Bilbrey, chief executive of the Better Business Bureau office of San Diego and Imperial Counties in Southern California. "The Better Business Bureau is all about asking the question up front before you make a hire."

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Although six percent is the accepted standard for real estate agent commissions on home sales, you can pay less. Generally, if you negotiate a lower rate, you can expect a lower level of service, but you want to specify that level of service in the contract before you sign.

Some real estate businesses even offer a menu of services that are available at varying commissions. But before you gun for saving money, consider whether you're really willing to put up your own signs and staff your own open house. If it's not a problem, then go ahead and set up the abbreviated service contract. Just be sure that you and your agent are both clear on the services that will be contractually provided.

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In a slow real estate market, you have to employ all the right tricks to sell a house, and this may include some very specific home improvements. The advantage of having an agent to help with the sale is that the agent should know how to apply all the right tricks to your property and should be able to give you honest, specific advice about the improvements that will help sell your home.

So if you're interviewing an agent, and you don't hear anything a little bit painful about changes you need to make to prepare your home for sale, be wary. An honest, knowledgeable agent is better than one who just tells you what you want to hear.

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When you hire a real estate agent to sell your house, one of the first things the agent will do is to create a Certified Market Analysis (CMA), which analyzes the sale prices of similar properties in your neighborhood. This is an important step in determining the starting sale price of your home. Because foreclosures obviously sell for less, they bring down the average sale price for the neighborhood.

When you review the agent's assessment, make sure the list of recently sold homes includes foreclosures. Like it or not, the prices of every house in a neighborhood can be influenced by even just one foreclosure, and an honest assessment will include this information.

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If your house sits on the market for a few months, chances are, in a slow real estate market, it will sell for less than it would have when you first listed it.

A good real estate agent will be forthright about this fact in the beginning.

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"If they demoralize you, it's a good sign," says Alan Sims, a forensic real estate appraiser and chief executive of the Center for Litigation and Consumer Real Estate Education. "If [the home] lingers on the market longer than three months, the owner needs a new analysis." Your agent should talk to you up front and throughout the sale process about where the market is and what you can do to help your home sell.

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One of the chief complications of selling a house right now is the fact that lenders have significantly tightened the requirements that buyers must meet to get loans. Because of the stringent requirements, the selling agent needs to be aggressive about making sure that people who make offers on homes can get the loans to buy them.

The best way to hire an agent who will cover the financing is to ask up front.

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"Have the agent discuss financing for new buyers," Sims says. "Ask if that's a standard thing they do." If it's not, you may want to move on to a different agent who can help you with that important part of the process.

Just because an agent has sold houses in your city doesn't mean she can sell your house, too. Even very small cities contain areas that have specific personalities and attract specific types of buyers.

If you're in a neighborhood populated primarily by doctors, then you want to make sure the agent isn't afraid to let the personnel department of the local hospital know about your listing. By the same token, if your house is in a neighborhood coveted by artists and writers, make sure you're dealing with an agent who's comfortable posting a listing on Web sites or Facebook groups where buyers might be found.

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But first, you need to make sure the agent knows the niche that feeds your neighborhood. "You've got agents who know some parts of the community but not others," Bilbrey says.

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Without question, this is the chief complaint about real estate agents.

You talk to the agent and sign a contract, and then you never see the agent or hear word from anyone who wants to see the house.

Bilbrey says the Better Business Bureau is most likely to hear from consumers who were led to believe the house would be shown more often. How often the house should be shown should be written into the contract. If you don't think a drive-by with potential buyers constitutes a legitimate showing, then specify what you think is legitimate. But if it's not in the contract, and you end up stuck, you have little recourse but to keep pestering your agent. "Certainly being the squeaky wheel is your best bet," Bilbrey says.

For more information on selling your home, check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Bilbrey, Sheryl. Personal Interview. Chief executive, Better Business Bureau of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Feb. 7, 2011
  • Sims, Alan. Personal Interview. Chief executive, Center for Litigation and Consumer Real Estate Education. Feb. 3, 2011.

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