To Find the Right House, Look for the Right Broker

You know what kind of house you want and how much you can pay for it.

Now you need some help finding it.

When you look for a real estate agent, make sure you find a good one.

Today, two new types of agents have joined the traditional seller's agent. Buyer's agents, who represent the buyer's interests, started a decade ago in California and in recent years have spread nationwide. And most of these agents can work both sides of the fence - so-called dual agents.

Comfortable fit

But the kind of agent you hire is not as important as finding someone with whom you work well.

"You need to find a broker who's patient with all your questions at first, because you're always going to have more," says Christine Kotsifas, who bought a first home last summer with her husband, Arthur.

The Kotsifases had such a good experience with their broker that they still have him over for dinner occasionally. Although he was a traditional seller's broker, they felt he looked out for their interests.

The day they made the offer on their house, he called them at 1 a.m. to try to talk them out of it. "He thought we had just fallen in love with the yard," Mrs. Kotsifas says.

Such insights can be vital, especially if you're new to an area or to buying a home. The American Homeowners' Foundation recommends a full-time broker with at least 10 years experience in the area. An agent with local experience can help find neighborhoods with good schools and strong financial futures, says AHF spokesman Chris Christensen.

Try interviewing at least three brokers, Mr. Christensen says. He also strongly recommends working with an exclusive buyer's agent.

A traditional seller's agent, such as the Kotsifas', has a financial obligation to the seller to get the highest price. So anything buyers might say about what they can afford could work against them. The agent has a responsibility to pass that information on to the seller.

A buyer's agent has no such conflicts. In principle, you should expect to pay the buyer's agent a fee, whereas a seller's agent would help you for free and get paid by the seller when the house sells.

But in practice, Christensen says, buyer's-agent fees often come out of the listing agent's commission, as with any broker.

"Many people today feel they would rather be represented by a buyer's broker," says Marilyn Moran, an executive with the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Nowadays it's easy to find a buyer's broker, but most are dual agents, representing buyers and sellers.

Potential conflict of interest

The problem with this practice, Christensen says, comes when the agent shows a buyer a listing for which the agent is also the seller's broker. The buyer may not receive the best advice on price negotiation.

But in practice, most brokers rely on referrals for business, so they want to ensure that "everyone feels treated fairly," Ms. Moran says.

Before negotiations, brokers must disclose whether they're working for the buyer, the seller, or both.

Many states are writing laws to clarify the distinction. And a few agents are practicing "single agency" - never representing buyers and sellers in the same transaction.

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