When touring a home builder's furnished model, many people avoid contact with the sales agent at all costs, fearing they will somehow be trapped into signing a sales contract. This is unfortunate because a good sales agent will have a wealth of information about the product, and he or she knows that buyers always visit three or four times before they get serious.

Invariably, when you first enter a model the sales agent will try to engage you in some small talk. She is trying to find out if you're a browser or a buyer and to get a sense of what you're looking for and how to be helpful. She will nearly always offer to take you through the house. If you decide to take the guided tour, don't hesitate to ask her to point out options, which often are not marked as such, and any unusual decorator items that were added to enhance the model presentation but are not for sale.

If you prefer to look by yourself and ask questions later, the agent won't be offended. And don't be embarrassed to admit that you're just whiling away a weekend afternoon and mainly want to look at the window treatments. Browsers have friends who may come to take a look and end up buying. Being upfront about your intent is especially helpful when there are other people in the model, including serious buyers.

Most sales agents suggest that you go through first and get a sales brochure with floor plans afterward. I always ask for the brochure before I start to look because I think it's easier to look with a "road map" in hand. I also find the floor plans handy for taking notes.

When you have zeroed in on a location and price range, the distinctions between one builder and another can be subtle. Most builders do not mind you taking photographs or videotaping their model to help you remember it, but you should ask the agent before you start to click away.

After the tour, ask for the price of the model as shown. Don't faint if you hear the house has $100,000 worth of options--this is routine for models that are mid-market and up. Ask the prices on a few of the big-ticket items, however, and you're likely to find that much of that $100,000 is easily accounted for. In many markets today a lot premium, a sun room addition, a breakfast room bump-out and a third garage bay can easily add $75,000 to the base price.

You should also ask the sales agent which options have been the most popular with buyers because if you end up buying a house in this community, you will want to get some of them as well. When resale time eventually comes, you will have a harder time selling if you took the plain-Jane approach and your house, by comparison, is less attractive than the others on the block.

The agent will almost always ask you to fill out a sales information card. You are not obliged to do this, but giving your name and checking off how you heard about the project--World Wide Web site, newspapers, drive by or a friend--gives the builder useful marketing information. Giving your address as well ensures that you will get updated information about new models, price changes and new financing.

The sales information card also requests somewhat detailed information about your income. If you find this intrusive, and many people do, you don't have to fill it out. But eventually this question will have to be addressed. If you haven't already talked with a mortgage lender and don't know how much financing you are likely to get, or even if you can afford the model that you are looking at, a good sales agent should be able to calculate the figures in her head in about half a minute.

Besides giving the house a careful look, ask the agent about the features that you can't see. For example, does the builder have any unusual energy package? If he's only offering what the code requires, it will be the same thing that most of the other builders in the area are offering.

Very few houses are a perfect fit, so ask about the builder's policy on making any alterations to his standard plan. Some builders won't change a thing, but others are more accommodating as long as the request does not require major surgery.

You may think the house was awful. You don't have to give your no-holds-barred assessment, but the builder wants to know what you think, even if it's negative. Explaining your reactions to the agent also could help you. If the agent understands clearly why you didn't like this particular house--you want a large dining room and the one in this model is tiny, or you feel lost in the large, two-story family room--she can direct you to another house by the same builder that is closer to your desires. If you disliked the kitchen cabinets, the builder probably offers seven other styles from which to choose.

Feel free to ask the sales agent how this builder's product compares with others nearby--she'll certainly know. But be wary if the sales agent starts to say negative things about the competition. Not only does this create an unpleasant atmosphere, but also the sales agent may be glossing over the shortcomings of her own product.

A good sales agent should offer a straightforward assessment of other builders nearby. But as the comparisons are being made, makes sure that apples are being compared to apples. Is the square footage the same? Are the standard items the same? Does one include a fireplace in the base price while at another it is an option? Is the fireplace gas or wood-burning? What size and brand of whirlpool soaking tub is offered?

Should you decide this house is promising and return for the second or third time, also factor in how you feel about the sales agent. During the sales negotiations and the four to six months of construction, you will be working together very closely. Sales agents are usually quite affable, but if you don't feel comfortable with one of them, it will color your entire experience.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at Salantques@aol.com