A Buyer’s Best Friend

Noelle Dorment, left, and her husband, Mike, center, relied on their real estate agent, Dee Murphy of Coldwell Banker, to help them find their three-bedroom house.

Noelle Dorment and her husband, Mike, didn’t drive only themselves crazy when they were looking for their dream house in Kensington’s Chevy Chase View neighborhood. They took their real estate agent along with them.

“We weren’t the easiest people to work with, that’s for sure,” says Noelle Dorment, 40, director of two autism waiver programs. She and her husband, 39 — vice president at Worcester Eisenbrandt, a historic-building restoration firm — were very specific in their requirements, right down to yard size (big, on a corner lot) and finishes (high-end). During their yearlong search, the former Silver Spring residents looked at about 20 houses and asked their agent, Dee Murphy of Coldwell Banker in Vienna, to write five offers, which take about an hour each to pen. (The Dorments either changed their minds or were outbid on four of them.)

Dorment attributes their eventual success with their fifth bid — they bought a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in July 2010 to which they’re adding two bedrooms and bathrooms — to Murphy’s patience and personality. “She was detail-oriented and knew how to help us weed through it all,” says Dorment (who found Murphy through a friend’s recommendation). “She could be humorous when we needed it.”

Demeanor is a huge part of what makes an agent great (or awful), but with more than 9,000 Realtors in the D.C. metro area, according to the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, lots of other factors — both personal and professional — come into play. Besides obvious requirements such as good communication skills and an encyclopedic knowledge of the area, experts cite self-motivation, honesty and tech savvy as the top attributes to look for in an agent.

“There isn’t just one key format for a successful real estate agent,” says Donna Evers, who’s worked in D.C. real estate for 36 years and founded the boutique company Evers and Co. Real Estate in 1985. When she’s looking to add to her team of 100, she’s drawn first to someone who’s driven, because although agents work for a company, they’re independent contractors, not employees.

“Being a real estate agent is like putting your sign out and being in business for yourself. You really are an entrepreneur,” Evers says. “Even if you get a lot of support from your company and you have a tremendous network of people you know, you still have to convince everybody to use you.”

And the allure of a deal can make it tough to determine who’s being straightforward, says Dewita Soeharjono, who runs the Metro DC Homes blog. “Instead of telling the truth to the seller that it’s just not possible to sell their home at the price they wanted, agents are willing to take the deal” for the sake of getting wider name recognition, she writes in an email. As a Weichert agent, Soeharjono once had a seller who believed his home would sell for $700,000, but the market had declined, and although Soeharjono knew he wouldn’t get it, she took the job on to circulate her name to other agents and prospective customers. The house never sold. “As far as business concern, this wasn’t a good move,” she wrote.

Realtor Dee Murphy says a personality match is a key part of finding the right agent.

Making sure someone is not self-serving is “the most difficult thing to distinguish because there are Realtors with great personalities that can fool you,” says Marc Fleisher, who has 33 years of real estate experience in the D.C. area, has sold $2.5 billion in property, and has held the title of No. 1 Long and Foster top producer nationwide in residential sales for the past 15 years. Look for someone who is candid about whether it’s the right time to sell or what price you can realistically expect to pay in a certain neighborhood, Fleisher says. “It’s really up to the consumer to ask the questions,” he adds.

Then, turn the questions to yourself, recommends Jill Malloy, director of training at Long and Foster’s Calverton, Md., office. “Would you get in the car with that person and would you trust them enough to give them the keys to your house?” Malloy says. “Basically, in real estate, what you’re doing is looking out for the best interest of the client, and either you care enough to do it, or you don’t.”

Do your research by calling the local board of Realtors or the manager at a neighborhood company to ask who the top agents are. A quick Google search can reveal a lot about an agent, too, such as which neighborhoods they specialize in and their employment history.

The Internet is a common starting point for many buyers. Last year, 40 percent of buyers first learned online about the home they bought, while 35 percent were introduced to it by a real estate agent, according to a 2011 survey by the National Association of Realtors. Still, 91 percent who searched online purchased through an agent in person.

A personal touch keeps agents crucial to the buying and selling processes, says Carol Poe, a Realtor who works out of the Waldorf, Md., Long & Foster office. “People can look on the Internet and find out what’s on sale themselves,” she says. “It’s your training and your level of understanding of the industry and your excitement and enthusiasm and level of commitment to that client that makes the difference.”

The Internet has increased the stakes for agents, says Jon Heithaus, chief marketing officer at Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which runs the country’s largest real estate listing service and monitors market trends. “The stronger the Internet gets,” he says, “the more it becomes essential for a really savvy, connected, networked real estate agent to be the definitive local expert.”

Agents’ use of online tools is more important now than the certifications they have, Heithaus adds.

The agent-customer relationship requires close interactions, including chats about personal finances, over several weeks or even years. If either party feels uncomfortable, that can undermine a deal, regardless of how good an agent looks on paper.

“You have to just match personalities,” Murphy says. “Dealing with someone like Mike [Dorment], he tells me to write a contract and I write a contract, and then the next day he decides, ‘That’s not the house for us.’ You need to have a relationship with someone where you’re not going to strangle them if they do that to you.”

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