A good real estate agent can make or break a home search, especially if you’re a young buyer.

According to a new report by the National Association of Realtors, 90 percent of adults 34 and younger who bought a home in the 12-month period ending June 2014 used an agent.

“They want someone who is going to help them through the process because they’ve never done this before,” said Jessica Lautz, director of survey research and communications at the association.

Many young buyers rely on referrals from family and friends to find an agent, according to the study. But here are four questions to ask before you pick an agent.

Whom do you represent?

You want an agent who will look out for your best interest. Some states allow what’s known as dual agency, in which an agent can represent both a buyer and a seller in the same transaction. By representing both sides, however, the agent can only give limited advice.

So-called exclusive buyer agents represent only home buyers. As a result, the chance of a conflict of interest is minimal. Even traditional brokerages that both list homes and represent buyers — but not on the same deal — can’t make that claim, says John Sullivan, an exclusive buyer agent in Baltimore.

“If agents start pounding down the prices on homes, the broker might approach those agents and say they’re getting killed on the listing side,” Sullivan said.

You can search for exclusive buyer agents through the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents.

When do you require a signed agreement?

At some point, your agent will ask you to sign what’s known as a buyer agreement, which essentially says you will work exclusively with the agent for a set period, usually 90 days.

In some states, an agreement does not have to be signed until a buyer is about to make an offer on a home, said Ilona Bray, senior legal editor at Nolo. In other states, such as Virginia, an agreement has to be signed before you begin touring homes.

In general, you want to see if you and your agent get along before you sign an agreement. So ask if you can spend an afternoon or two looking at homes together without a contract.

What services will you provide?

Make sure you understand what services the agent will provide, such as finding open houses and submitting offers on properties. “This is important both for mutual understanding and in case things go very wrong and the buyer wants to sue for breach of contract,” Bray said.

Also discuss how frequently your agent will be in touch and by what means (e-mail, text or phone). In addition, ask if she can recommend mortgage lenders, repairmen and other local service providers you may need for a home.

How will you get paid?

In general, the seller covers agent fees. Occasionally, however, you will be on the hook for payment. For example, you may owe the balance of your agent’s commission if the seller’s payment isn’t sufficient.

So understand how your agent will be paid. If you’re uneasy about the terms, keep looking for another agent.


Carolyn Bigda writes for the Chicago Tribune.