With home prices down 30 percent and real estate transactions diminished by somewhere between one-third and one-half from their peak levels, a huge number of agents -- thousands on the West side of Los Angeles -- are working a much smaller pool of listings and buyers.
The good news for buyers and sellers: You can be a lot pickier than in the past.
Unlike most professions where those who are more accomplished command higher fees, the best agents command essentially the same commission as someone who just passed their real estate exam. Since cost isn't a factor, buyers and sellers have a unique opportunity to carefully screen a list of top brokers and hire the best without spending a dime more.
With so many qualified agents available in the current market, what should you consider when shopping for a broker? There are a few essential questions that you should ask a broker before hiring them:
"How much experience do you have with properties such as mine?"
Any broker should be able to show you what they have done in the past. You should find out how many deals they have closed in your price range and in your neighborhood over the past few years and whether they typically represented the buyer, seller or both. You can further gauge a broker's success by how quickly their comparable homes have sold, how many price reductions were necessary and how close the final price came to the original asking price.
"How much attention can you pay to my property?"
It is critical to know how many listings or clients the agent is currently handling. There are only so many hours in a day and if an agent is spread too thin, there will be conflict and compromise. Knowing whether the agent represents closer to three or 30 clients, you will be able to gauge how much attention they can pay to representing your deal and whether their time is spent showing houses or trying to acquire new clients.
"Will you handle the showings yourself or pass them off to an assistant?"
It's common for many agents to take a listing and then hand the work off to a less experienced assistant. This happens frequently. Whereas an experienced agent has honed his or her ability to sense if a buyer is interested in a house, an untrained assistant will simply open the door and point out the obvious: "This is the living room. This is the dining room..." One of the most important skills an agent brings to the table is the ability to spend their time with an interested buyer and not with someone who doesn't care. Most people know the minute they walk through the front door if they like the house or not. An experienced agent recognizes that and reacts accordingly.
"How familiar are you with the neighborhood where my property is located?"
Ask the agent to be specific and give you a list of other homes in the area that he or she has sold or represented. There is nothing worse than an agent who is working outside his or her comfort zone and misrepresenting his or her knowledge of nearby schools, shops, police services and other neighborhood characteristics. An agent should be able to immediately answer most questions a buyer asks.
"What tech savvy methods will you use to market my property?"
Over the last decade -- particularly in the last three years -- the internet has become an essential tool in selling a house. A tech savvy agent knows that most buyers (and sellers) look online for information before contacting their broker. The quality of your broker's website is incredibility important.
Your broker should use "search engine optimization" tactics to ensure the site ranks high in search results. Once the site is found, it must be easy to navigate, contain compelling high-resolution photos and video tours, and provide your broker's direct cell numbers and email addresses.
You should also ask how many other websites will include your listing and whether they're local, national or international in scope.
Buyers and sellers will also have a better experience if their agent's firm has the latest business tools, such as pdf scanning and electronic document signing. All of these pieces of technology make the buying and selling process faster and more efficient.
When you consider that the dollar amount you are transacting is generally many times your income, it makes sense to do some extra work in choosing a representative. You owe it to yourself to choose the best person and not just the person you know has a real estate license. A few hours of homework will result in a faster and financially-more-desirable end result.
Stephen Shapiro is chairman of Westside Estate Agency, a leading luxury real estate agency with offices in Beverly Hills and Malibu.