Whether you're starting the process of buying your first home or want to sell the home you're in to upgrade or change neighborhoods, the process of buying a new home can seem daunting. From finding a great real estate agent, working with a lender, acquiring a real estate lawyer, and getting a home inspector—all on a short deadline—buying a home can often feel like writing the most overwhelming and emotional college research paper. But if you know what to look for from the beginning, the road to homeownership ends up being much easier. Here, discover who the experts recommend having on your real estate dream team (as well as how to find them).
Finding the best agent to buy a home
While many of us might ask a few friends if they have a real estate agent to recommend—it seems that everyone knows someone who works in real estate—that doesn't mean their recommendation is the best person for you. Yes, real estate seems to be built on referrals, but experts still encourage you to do your due diligence and check references when finding an agent.
If you're starting at ground zero without referrals, you'll probably be tempted to start your home search on Zillow or Trulia (owned by Zillow) to browse homes. While that's not a bad starting point, one thing most people don't know is that Zillow is a media company. "They are not real estate brokerages," says Shirley Hackel, a broker at Compass New York City with over 30 years of experience. "They have a product called 'Premier Agent' which is paid advertising where agents buy space on a particular listing. It's my experience that these agents, more often than not, lack real knowledge of the property and neighborhood; some may not have ever seen the property."
Instead of one of these listing aggregators, begin your home search by perusing a number of sites (including MLS.com, Realtor.com, Redfin, Century21, RE/MAX, Keller Williams, and Compass) and reaching out to a few agents from different companies.
"I recommend meeting several agents for coffee," says Hackel. "Buying a home…is probably the largest acquisition you will make and represents a sizeable portion of [your] net worth. A buyer needs an agent who will serve as an advocate, an adviser, and a guide so you can navigate the search, identify the property, and get to the closing table." She suggests looking for an agent who is a strong communicator, a patient listener, a skilled collaborator, and a confident negotiator.
Here are some considerations when meeting with and "interviewing" a real estate agent:
- Verify that the agent has the appropriate licenses and certifications for your state, suggests Lauren Makk, Yelp's home expert.
- Ask the agent how long they've been in the real estate business and whether they're a buying agent, selling agent, or broker, as well as if they do this full time.
- Ask how many other buyers and sellers they are currently serving. Make sure they have the time to work for you and the partnership feels like a good fit, advises Makk.
- Ask for references from their previous buyers and check them out.
- Discuss their expectations of working with you and how much time you both have to look at homes that are on the market. You will probably be asked to sign an Agency Disclosure Form which is required by many states. This form is not a binding contract and simply acknowledges the agency relationship between you and the broker.
If it turns out that you and a particular agent are not a right fit, don't be afraid to call it quits. Here are seven scenarios in which it's totally okay to fire your agent.
Ideally, you should start searching for an agent the moment your housing search is ready to become "serious." While perusing open houses on your own is a good way to dip your toes in the home-buying waters (and see what's available for your budget), if you find a home you love, don't try to buy it unrepresented or work with the seller's agent to strike a deal, advises Hackel. "Understand that the seller's agent has a fiduciary responsibility to the seller," she says. Make sure you have an agent to represent your interests and advocate for you.
Building the Rest of Your Real Estate Dream Team
"When I meet with potential clients—either buyers or sellers—I give them a packet of people/businesses I worked with before," says Aaron Bowman, real estate agent with Mazz Real Estate in Connecticut. His list consists of home inspectors, real estate attorneys, painters, contractors, cleaners, and landscapers. "I let my clients know that the individuals on the list have been vetted," Bowman says. "However, they can look for others on their own. I tell them to use either HomeAdvisor or Thumbtack as those companies check out the contractors on their site."
Here's a checklist of who else you need to create a real estate dream team:
Mortgage broker, loan advisor, or lender
Before you start seriously shopping for a home, it's best to get a pre-approval letter from a bank since some real estate agents require one before scheduling home viewings. My husband and I started off with a bank we were already clients with for a pre-approval letter to kick-start the search process. Once we had that, we shopped the best rates using referrals from friends and our real estate agents. It is generally advised to shop around for the best loan while looking for a home in order to get a good deal.
"The difference between a loan advisor [or loan officer] and a mortgage broker is that a loan advisor works directly for a lender and will quote you rates on various loan products their lending institution offers," says Brenda Di Bari, real estate broker with Halstead Real Estate in New York City. "A mortgage broker is an independent agent who does not loan money. They may work with many different lenders and can shop around for you to get the best rate." Though a loan advisor only works with one lender, they still may be able to give you a better rate than a mortgage broker, Di Bari says.
Keep in mind that it's very common for people to use the title 'broker' for the person who may actually be a loan officer, not realizing that there is a difference, Di Bari says. "To sum it up, a loan officer works directly for a lender while a broker is an independent party that does not work for anyone."
Jorge Fernandez, an agent with Compass Florida, recommends working with a loan advisor who specializes in your needs, like first-time home buyer programs, loans for veterans (VA Loans), foreign national loans, investment loans, corporate loans, condo loans, jumbo loans, as examples. "One shoe never fits all in lending," he says.
A real estate attorney
Though you might love your general practice lawyer, experts recommend working with a specialized real estate attorney when purchasing a home. "They're responsible for the title and ownership transfer of the subject property and closing, and should have the knowledge and means to represent you personally, should a legal matter arise," says Yasser Ponce, agent at Compass Florida. Your real estate agent might have recommendations, or ask a friend or family member who's recently moved if they liked their attorney and look into meeting with them. Also consider browsing sites like the Better Business Bureau (BBB.org), Lawyers.com, Avvo.com, and Findlaw.com, to name a few.
An inspection company or individual
Ask your agent for their inspector recommendations. You can also search on a platform like HomeAdvisor, Angie's List, or Thumbtack for reviewed providers.
"Do your homework by researching and identifying several quality home inspectors that you could potentially use prior to starting your home buying process," says Angie Hicks, co-founder, Angie's List. "This prepares you for the quick turnaround time that often comes with hiring a home inspector once your offer has been accepted."
Ask your home inspector for proof of state certification or proof of membership in the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors, National Association of Home Inspectors, or the American Society of Home Inspectors, says Hicks. "These memberships typically require a minimum number of inspections done to join, so that can help ensure you find an experienced professional. Also, always ask to see proof of licensing if your state requires home inspectors to be licensed, and inquire about proof of general liability insurance as well as errors and omission insurance," says Hicks.
And a team is only as stellar as its second-string: Keep these helpers at the ready for when you close on a home.
You got your keys at closing, but Ponce recommends calling a locksmith right away. You don't know who else might have copies of keys to the home—it's best to change them all for safety's sake.
After the closing takes place, the work has just begun. "Typically, a buyer wants to make changes to the property she just bought. A good handyman, preferably local, is always a great idea. They can take care of several small projects at once," says Fernandez. For larger jobs or renovations, he suggests looking to a licensed general contractor.
A moving company
The right moving company will take the stress of moving and turn it into peace of mind. Using a reputable company means you can be sure that the right packing materials will be used, your belongings will be safely handled, and all the logistics will be smooth. To find the best company for your needs, check references and referrals. You also will want to ask if the movers are bonded and insured, advises Fernandez.
As an Apartment Therapy reader, it's a good bet that you have an eye for detail and some natural decorating talents. But if you want to take your new home to the next level of comfort, style, and best use of space, consider hiring a professional decorator or designer. Ask the staff at a local design or home goods store if they have any recommendations or services. You can also browse review listing sites like Houzz, Yelp, and Thumbtack.