Tami Michaels knows how to fix up a house. She even has her own Saturday morning show on KOMO radio called "Home Front" where she helps callers do the same.

But when it comes to buying a house, Michaels discovered that finding a good real estate agent can be a challenge.

She started looking for an old house to buy and renovate about six months ago. The first agents she worked with were sometimes critical of the houses she was attracted to and acted as if she didn't know what she wanted. Michaels didn't care for that attitude. "I am not an ignorant buyer," she said.

So she went out and found an agent she's very happy with, but her story is not unusual. That's why real estate professionals recommend shopping around for an agent. Real estate agents specialize by geographic area and type of housing. So if you want a new house, find someone who focuses on that market.

"It's like looking for anything else," said Ginger Downs, executive director of the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors. "Contact a franchise or firm and see if they have someone who understands the new-home market. It is a little bit different."

Finding an agent who knows the market is just one step toward success, as Paul Jameson discovered the hard way.

Jameson recently sold his condominium, which has a sweeping view, for $750,000, but he switched real estate agents in the process.

He said the first agent he dealt with quickly returned with offers on his condo. Unfortunately, each was made by someone with a pet, even though Jameson said he made it clear that pets were banned from the building. The agent said those making the offers wanted Jameson to get the bylaws changed to allow pets, he said.

Instead, Jameson switched to an agent he met at an open house. He was impressed by his friendliness and knowledge of the Seattle condo market.

They got together for a two-hour interview in which Jameson asked about the agent's sales history, his plan for marketing the condo and his references. They even negotiated the commission. Jameson then told the agent that he would give him a contract to sell the unit within 90 days, with an option for extending the contract.

"I was a little aggressive," Jameson said, but "he didn't flinch at any of that" and came back with a list of references and a marketing plan in 48 hours. That, and his punctuality, sold Jameson.

"When he said he'd call back between 3 and 4 o'clock, he would call between 3 and 4 o'clock."

The condo was sold in 110 days, and the thing that sticks with Jameson is how the agent dealt with him: "He made himself available and was probably the best listener."

Knowing the market and being a good listener are considered two of the most important traits of a good real estate agent, customers and professionals in the field say. All the hours of training and on-the-job experience don't mean much if there is bad chemistry between the client and agent.

The better real estate agents are pretty interchangeable, said Patrick Chinn, 29, a second-generation agent in Seattle.

"It's just who you get along with best," he said.

Word-of-mouth references rank at the top of the list of ways to find an agent, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors.

But people have found their agents at open houses, by visiting a real estate office or by calling a name listed in an ad. And many people go back to agents they have worked with in the past.

Vanessa Gallant and her husband bought a condo from an agent they met at an open house. They didn't buy the condo they were looking at and didn't expect to hear from the agent staging the open house. But he called a short time later to tell them about another condo he thought they would be interested in. They were sold on him and the unit.

"We just kind of stumbled onto him and were very, very lucky," Gallant said.

If you drop into real estate offices that cover a lot of neighborhoods, talk to the broker who will try to match you with an agent who specializes in the neighborhood you want, said Brian Fairchild, broker of Windermere's 30-agent office in southeast Seattle.

The key to success is doing some homework.

"I encourage them to shop around," said Downs, who recommends that people talk to at least two or three agents before choosing one.

Downs said the most common complaint she hears from customers is that there is a breakdown in communication. She advises people to make sure they understand what the agent is talking about.

"Be sure to write your questions down," she said. "Forms can be confusing. Say, 'Please explain.' "

Downs said people with serious complaints should first go to the agent's broker or to the corporate level.

After that, one can lodge a complaint with the state department of licensing.

To become a state-licensed real estate agent means taking 60 "clock hours" of course work and passing an exam. Licenses are renewed every two years by taking continuing education classes.

Agents can also earn specialized designations by taking extra training.

For example, someone with an ABR (Accredited Buyers Representative) certification has completed a two-day course, including a written exam, to learn more about representing buyers.

While some agents tout their extra training, others say it's not that important.

"At this point, I have no designation. Have I lost a client? Absolutely not," said Dawn Bourdo, a Coldwell Banker Bain agent in Seattle.

"It is an important thing, but it sure hasn't kept my phone from ringing," Bourdo said, adding: "Competence is one thing . . . but the most important thing is that [the agents] listen to you."

And can be reached. That is what has made Lauri Cass one of the top-producing agents in the nation for Century 21 Smith/Ring. Cass, who works out of Century 21's Bellevue, Wash., office, conducted a brief interview with a reporter via cellular phone while walking into a hair salon.

"I work all the time," said Cass, 30. "I talk 4,000 minutes a month on the cell phone. I'm never not accessible."

And what can clients do to help their agent?

"The buyer should be educated," Fairchild said. "I'm not talking about late-night television, but do a little research yourself. And listen to what the agent has to say. If they say get pre-approved [for a mortgage loan], do that. If there are five other offers on the table and you're not pre-approved, you're out of luck."

Vicki Browning, broker at a John L. Scott office in Seattle, said some buyers don't give their agents all the financial information they need to make a good offer. As a result, deals unnecessarily fall through.

But a buyer shouldn't be made to feel guilty for taking up the agent's time if the buyer wants to explore a number of neighborhoods, Browning said.

"That shouldn't be a problem. They [real estate agents] should work for them."

Good agents expect to work hard for their money, Downs said, noting that most are part of the working class too.

"There are agents who make a very lucrative living, but the average agent just makes an average decent living."

The average holder of a real estate license in the state of Washington made $38,400 in 1994, the latest figures available from the Washington Center for Real Estate Research.

"I've always characterized it as a high-effort, low-return business," said Glenn Crellin, the center's director. "There are some that do extraordinarily well, but the bulk of the people are just getting by."