By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 7, 2007
When Cate Engel and her husband decided to sell their Gaithersburg house, they turned to a real estate agent whose mailing had caught their eye. They met with her twice and signed a six-month contract.
They soon realized their mistake. The postcard the agent mailed to advertise their first open house had an outdated photo, taken before the couple moved in and repainted the house. They looked for the ad the agent said she had placed in the newspaper. They never found it. They did find the ad for their second open house, but the directions were wrong, Engel said.
After those open houses failed to attract buyers, their agent, whom the couple declined to name, gave them street signs so they could hold their own open houses.
"She got to the point where I guess she didn't want to deal with it," Engel said.
Their contract was supposed to expire yesterday. They terminated it one month early and pulled their house off the market.
"We got out of the contract and, needless to say, we will not be going with her when we relist the property," Engel said.
Breaking up is hard to do, especially when it's with someone who knows so much about your finances and lifestyle. Back when houses were bought and sold within days -- or even hours -- of going on the market, it didn't matter if you didn't like your agent. It didn't even really matter if your agent was any good. Chances were you weren't going to spend much time together anyway.
Now that homes are sitting on the market, it matters.
"It's a very personal experience," said Robyn Porter, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Real Estate in Bethesda. "I know people's financial information. . . . I'm spending time in their homes."
Agents now have to work harder to keep their clients, especially sellers.
"There's just a level of understanding that's required and a time commitment that's required to sell these properties, and it requires daily follow-up with sellers, not weekly, not monthly," said Jeff Lockard, a real estate agent with Tutt, Taylor & Rankin. "The agents who got into the business five or six years ago, when the market was easier -- unfortunately, they don't possess those tools or haven't had the training."
Just because it's a buyer's market doesn't mean that buyers require any less attention.
"The buyers in this market are a lot more skittish than they were before," said Brandon Green, an agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties in Columbia Heights. It used to be, Green said: "you put your money in a bag and put it on the table, and whoever has the biggest bag of money wins. . . . Now you have to negotiate more."
Kristi Nadler, 34, didn't even get to negotiate before she realized she needed a new agent. Hers insisted that she make a decision after seeing just two houses in Maryland. The owner was at one of the houses during her visit. Nadler tried to ask questions, but her agent repeatedly interrupted her.
"It didn't seem like he wanted to help," she said. "I don't know why. That was his job. I felt like I was kind of a burden."
She didn't call him back. At a friend's suggestion, she switched to Maria Princi of Coldwell Banker in Chevy Chase. Princi, she said, showed her about 50 houses. Nadler decided on a three-bedroom in Bowie in March.
But if you think you can just walk away from an agent, think again. Most likely, particularly if you're selling, you have a signed contract.
Designed to ensure that the agent receives a commission if he or she has anything to do with the transaction, contracts are not easy to break. Sometimes they even stipulate that the agent is due the commission for a certain period of time afterward.
"You can't just arbitrarily terminate it, because they're still entitled to a fee for the transaction," said Seth Stark, a partner at the Rockville law firm Stark, Meyers, Eisler & Leatham.
Stark recommends that if you're unhappy with your agent to talk to his or her broker or manager. Your contract is with your agent's brokerage, not the individual agent, he said. Sometimes the broker will assign you a different agent or let you out of the contract.
Laura Fall, the broker at Fall Properties in Arlington, said the client should be ready to pay to get out of the agreement. "I do think that most brokerage companies don't want an unhappy client and will release them as long as expenses are reimbursed," she said. For instance, agents, not their clients, usually pay for advertising.
Rarely, but sometimes, the contract will state that the client can end the relationship if dissatisfied.
"If they don't like us and they don't like what we're doing, we don't want to force them into a situation they're not happy with," said Green, whose contract allows an out as long at the client gives 24-hour written notification. (No client has ever taken him up on that, he said.)
There are also some things you can do upfront to protect yourself. If you don't like the terms of the contract, negotiate different ones. And don't lock yourself in for too long. Many agents prefer six-month agreements, but Stark recommends that sellers sign up for no more than four months. "That gives you some wiggle room," he said.
With so many agents looking for work these days, potential buyers and sellers have plenty of choices. Since the buying frenzy ended, people have been taking more time deciding whom to hire. Many even conduct interviews.
"Before, when the market was crazy, they rushed and made an offer, and it didn't matter who they were working with as long as they got their offer in," Porter said.
You might want to screen would-be agents as carefully as you screen dates.
Natalya Scimeca and her husband interviewed two individual agents and one team before hiring Porter. Scimeca didn't want to make the same mistake some of her friends did when they were house-hunting. They relied on referrals to choose their agents. One friend, she said, switched agents at least three times.
Scimeca and her husband also asked friends for recommendations, but they didn't stop there. They interviewed each agent for about 30 minutes. They asked for a list of all transactions in the past year. They also asked for references -- and called each one of them.
"I just thought it would be easier to do a little bit of work upfront because I had heard of friends who had gone through many agents," said Scimeca, 30, a lawyer.
She and her husband quickly ruled out the team because they were reluctant to provide references. The other agent was bubbly and promised to make the process fun.
Porter arrived at their first meeting with a packet of useful information. They chose her because she seemed the most prepared.
"I said upfront: 'This is a business transaction, and we want to make sure this is done correctly,' " Scimeca said.
Of course, it's not always the agent's fault when things don't go as planned.
Sometimes, said Phyllis Papkin, an agent with Re/Max Allegiance in Fairfax County, it's just a matter of timing. Or maybe it was that the last agent could not persuade the client to lower his or her asking price and the new agent managed to do so.
"If the next agent just got lucky and sold it, the seller is going to think it's the new agent," Papkin said. "But it might not have been."
Skylar Rampersaud can't prove that switching agents led to the sale of her Logan Circle condominium. But she thinks it helped.
Rampersaud's first mistake was letting a family friend sell her one-bedroom condo. The friend, whom she declined to name, had successfully sold another of Rampersaud's properties, a single-family house near Takoma Park.
Rampersaud's original asking price for the condo was $314,000. She received an offer in June, two months after putting it on the market. Then a flood damaged the unit. Rampersaud repaired the hardwood floors, but the buyer was not satisfied, so the contract fell through.
Her agent, she said, "wasn't used to selling condos, and the fact that we had the contract fall through really flustered her, and she didn't know how to advise us."
Rampersaud told the agent that it wasn't working. The agent agreed, Rampersaud said. The agent's broker was willing to let Rampersaud out of the agreement because her condo was deemed a "problem property."
"I think we were just both ready to be out of that business relationship," Rampersaud said.
Rampersaud, by this time living in Hawaii, where she works for the Defense Department, searched the Internet for a new agent. She wanted someone who specialized in condos and stumbled upon the Web site of Rachel Valentino, an agent at Long & Foster's Friendship Heights office. She interviewed Valentino a few times by phone. She also dispatched her mother, who lives in the District, to meet her.
After seeing the condo, Valentino recommended that Rampersaud have it painted. She had professional photos taken for an Internet ad and added lamps for better lighting.
"I really liked the fact that she had the ideas and I wasn't the one who had to come up with ideas and figure out how to sell my place," Rampersaud said.
Rampersaud also liked that Valentino was so easy to reach. They talked by phone at least every other day and e-mailed frequently. Valentino said she believed the relationship worked because Rampersaud was clear about her expectations and Valentino was clear about how she would meet them. Valentino said she gives her clients a summary of exactly what she will be doing on their behalf each week. She relisted Rampersaud's property in late December for $299,999. It sold for that much in a few weeks.
"Once you go through a bad experience, you know exactly what you don't want going forward," Valentino said.