One of the first and most important decisions most people make when selling a house is selecting a real estate agent. The real estate agent is the sellers’ representative, helping them navigate a process that the agent is far more familiar with than they are.
A typical real estate agent will sell a dozen houses a year. A typical homeowner sells a house a handful of times in a lifetime. In a market like the District of Columbia and the surrounding region, where inventory is relatively low and demand is high and getting higher, the process is faster, more intense, and often more complicated than in most markets around the country.
‘‘I tell my clients, you’re hiring us to negotiate for you and act in your best interest,’’ said Peggy Yee, a supervising broker with Frankly Realtors in Falls Church, Va. ‘‘I have to think ahead and prepare my client for the environment they’re about to go into. I have to know what to expect in each situation.’’
A real estate agent should be engaged from start to finish. Early on, a seller’s agent makes recommendations about how the homeowner can best prepare a house for a sale. The agent will suggest repairs and minor upgrades. Staging might be proposed to highlight the house’s potential. Then together, agent and seller determine how to price the house.
And once potential buyers emerge, the agent helps manage and negotiate offers, to obtain top dollar for the house, and guides the homeowner through a complex closing process that can differ greatly from state to state.
An agent’s ability to do all of those different tasks well comes down to one thing: experience.
‘‘That’s very important in this industry,’’ said Chris Jones, an agent with Long and Foster in Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. ‘‘You need someone with a knowledge of the market and where it’s predicted to go, someone who knows how things work.’’
It takes a savvy agent to negotiate in a fast-moving market, Jones said, so you’ll want someone who’s been there before.
How do sellers find an experienced agent? Start by asking friends and colleagues for recommendations, and read agents’ online reviews. Look to see whether the agent works full time, because a full-timer will conduct more transactions than a part-timer. Do the letters CRS appear after the agent’s name? That abbreviation identifies the agent as a ‘‘certified residential specialist,’’ a designation awarded by the National Association of Realtors, signifying a large volume of home sales and a reservoir of real estate knowledge.
But to really vet someone, home sellers should meet an agent in person.
‘‘They need to be interviewing real estate agents,’’ said Andrew Riguzzi, an agent with District Property Group. ‘‘Ask about their skills, qualifications, how many houses they’ve sold.’’
And then go deeper: Can the prospective agent outline a customized marketing plan for the house? How would the agent price the house and why?
‘‘Someone who walks in to make an evaluation on your house without a spreadsheet is probably not the right person for you,’’ Riguzzi said.
The agent needs to know about and be able to document local market data and trends.
Spending time together also helps a seller discover the agent’s less-tangible qualities.
‘‘You want someone who listens and asks questions, not someone who’s talking all the time,’’ Jones said. ‘‘And a positive attitude and low ego is important. They need to put your needs first.’’
Ultimately, it’s a relationship that functions well only if both parties trust each other.
Once the right agent has been identified, it’s time to make it legal. The seller signs a standard contract that gives the agent the exclusive right to list the property for sale. The listing agreement explains the agent’s responsibilities and the seller’s recourse if the agent doesn’t meet them, including the possibility of breaking the contract.
The agreement also spells out the commission that the buyer’s and seller’s agents will split when the house is sold — the only payment they receive for their efforts. There is no standard commission, but a typical amount is 5 or 6 percent of the final sales price.
There are ways to avoid paying a full commission. Most notably, the website Redfin offers real estate agents’ services at a much lower rate. Sellers using Redfin pay 1 to 1.5 percent to list a house.
Although the lower commissions can add up to big savings, critics say Redfin agents, who are paid by salary rather than commission, aren’t quite as motivated as traditional agents to aim for a high sales price. And because sellers might encounter several Redfin agents throughout the process, the service can lack a certain personal touch and a sense of continuity.
But for some people, that’s OK, said Kim Rice, an agent with RLAH Real Estate in Chevy Chase, Md. ‘‘I think a lot of millennials don’t care,’’ Rice said. ‘‘You can’t miss something that you never had.’’
And in many ways, she said, the advent of Redfin has pushed traditional real estate agents to work harder and do better.
‘‘You’ve got to add value,’’ Rice said. ‘‘The good old days of real estate agents just getting into their car and showing houses are over.’’