When they’re finally ready to make the jump from renting to home ownership, most first time homebuyers enlist a real estate agent to help them through the process. No wonder: buying a home is complicated and when it’s your first time, you feel like you could use some hand-holding.
Real estate agents provide a valuable service and are generally well-paid as a result. There’s nothing wrong with that. But money does have a way of distorting relationships — even when honest people are involved.
Here are some tips that will help you, as a first time homebuyer, take full advantage of today’s real estate market and get the most out of your relationship with your real estate agent.
1. Your agent is your agent
When you’re new to the process, it is easy to believe that the guy with 20 years’ experience calls the shots. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Your real estate professional is your agent: he or she works for you, gives you advice and negotiates on your behalf. He doesn’t make decisions for you and you should not expect him to.
2. Only fools fall in love
After you’ve looked at a few houses that weren’t quite right, your agent will probably tell you not to get discouraged, and that eventually you will “fall in love” with the right property.
Love makes you do stupid things. Stupid things like paying too much or looking past costly repair items. As a first-time homebuyer, you should develop a healthy ‘like’ for a property, but keep the relationship open, see other houses. There will be plenty of time for “love” after you’ve put in the 300 hours of sweat equity to make your house a home.
3. Be willing to walk away
If you never fall in love with a piece of real estate, you’ll never cry when you have to walk away from it. Real estate agents often use the phrase “my client will walk away” and some use it quite loosely to stress the importance of a point for negotiation. If you want to retain the full strength of your position as a buyer, you’ll need “I’ll walk away” to mean that you are done if your demands aren’t met.
For your agent to communicate this correctly to the seller, he needs to know that you mean what you say. And yes, if it reaches that point, you will need to walk away from a property. Not to worry: there are others out there. But don’t be surprised if you hear back from the seller a week later that he is willing to work with your demands.
4. Time is on your side
Your agent is going to tell you that you have to move quickly and make the best offer possible when you find the right property. This is not always the best advice. As a first time homebuyer, you are in a unique position of strength in terms of the real estate transaction. You aren’t selling your home, so you don’t have to move. You can look at and make offers on many properties. You can start with a low offer and negotiate upwards if the seller balks. You can table a counter-offer and look around a bit before deciding to pay more. The opposite is generally true of sellers in a buyer’s market. They need to sell the property and are motivated to move as quickly as possible. Use time to your advantage.
5. Your agent is not your friend
Your agent performs valuable services in the real estate transaction, but he really doesn’t make anything until you buy a piece of real estate. That makes him a salesman. Being a salesman, he wants you to feel like he is a friend who has your best interests at heart.
The reality is that your interests and your agent’s may not be aligned. He is actually better off financially if you make a quick decision and pay too much for a property. This is, after all, likely the largest business transaction of your life. Make sure that your agent, regardless of how personable he is, understands that you are a customer and that you need him to drive the best business deal for you.
6. The listing agent just might be your best friend
In the New York Times best-selling book Freakanomics, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner point out that real estate agents typically market their own homes for 10 days longer than they market their clients’ homes. Is this because they are so busy with their clients that they don’t have time to market their own homes?
No, it really comes down to how we incentivize real estate agents with commission. When an agent is selling his own home, he enjoys the full benefit of any increase in sales price so he is extremely motivated to market for as long as possible to get the best sales price possible. But when it comes to a client’s home, an extra week on the market might lead to a higher sales price for the seller — but the agent will only enjoy a very small amount of that increase in the form of marginal increase to Realtor fees. Meanwhile, marketing a home for another week would take him away from marketing someone else’s property. As such, the listing agent is highly motivated to convince the seller that your offer is the best offer he is going to receive. Use this to your advantage and make offers that are good for you.
7. There is no such thing as an embarrassingly low offer
When it comes to a property that has been sitting with no action, there is no such thing as an offer that is too low. Some agents will tell you that that you could offend the seller or that your offer is embarrassing. A good agent will encourage you to make strategically low offers. Offers are really not a lot of work and the worst thing that can happen is that your offer is not accepted. Often, however, in a buyer’s market a low offer will turn into a counter-offer. Think of the first offer as the starting point for negotiations and be prepared to consider counter-offers.
8. Online real estate companies can save you money
Over the past decade, online real estate companies have started to take market share away from traditional brick-and-mortar agencies. They’ve grown by offering discounts and rebates on the traditional 3% real estate commission. RedFin, one of the leading online real estate companies, offers buyers a rebate of up to 50% of the commission at close. RedFin also compensates their agents with salary as opposed to commission, which alleviates some conflict of interest issues. Granted, the service may not be as extensive or personalized — but the extra cash may offset the drawbacks.