Before they ventured out in the Silver Spring area to view houses for sale, Aisha and Steven Satterwhite spent weeks researching possible neighborhoods and homes, especially mid-century modern ones.

At an open house, they met their agent — a man they were already familiar with from reading his blog and seeing him quoted.

In choosing Michael Shapiro, they bypassed friends who are real estate agents. “We wanted enough personal distance. You never know how these things turn out,” said Aisha Satterwhite, who is a principal at a communications and Web consulting company. “We felt pretty confident” because of his reputation and expertise in homes built between 1945 and 1965.

Even today, when real estate listings and comparable sales data can be pulled up on Trulia, Zillow and other sites, a good real estate agent can be quite valuable in getting a home you love at a good price. This is especially true of first-time buyers and people relocating from other regions.

Yet nationwide, home buyers last year were less satisfied with their real estate agent and company than any time in the past five years since J.D. Power and Associates started measuring customer satisfaction with real estate agencies and staff. The agent has the biggest impact on satisfaction ratings for buyers and sellers, Power officials say.

More foreclosures and more economic uncertainty mean “customers are just much more anxious” about buying a home, which means they need more care, Power analyst Christina Cooley said. Customer satisfaction may have declined as real estate companies cut back on staffing and services, reducing employee morale.

While real estate agency customer satisfaction ratings have declined, they remain higher than buyers of luxury vehicles or customers of full-service investment firms, according to Power data.

Nationwide, about 40 percent of buyers find a real estate agent through a friend, neighbor or relative, and that rises to 49 percent for first-time buyers, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors. About one in six repeat buyers uses the same agent who sold them a home before, and one in nine first-time and repeat buyers picks an agent from a Web site. A similar number either found their agent at an open house or saw their contact information on a real estate sign, the NAR survey of 8,501 recent buyers.

“The best thing to do is ask someone you know and trust for a referral,” said Janice Buckley, a Long & Foster agent in Springfield. She gets lots of her new clients that way.

Find an agent you can trust, and someone who will put your interest above all others, she said.

This may mean using a buyer’s agent, someone who is contractually obligated only to you and your best interest in the deal. Otherwise, you want to avoid the dual agency, where one agent represents both seller and buyer, said Peter Antonoplos, a D.C. real estate and estate planning lawyer. “Find an agent from a different brokerage so there’s a separation of interest,” he said, or at least an agent who works in a different office.

It may make sense to schedule screening interviews with two or three agents and to ask them to explain how they work and what their response times for questions are. “Make sure personality wise they’re a good fit,” Antonoplos said.

When buyers or sellers run into serious problems with their agent and sue, it usually stems from two causes, the agents’ inexperience or their unscrupulous behavior, Antonoplos said. He suggests asking potential agents how many transactions a year they handle representing sellers and buyers.

Cooley said two common complaints that lead to reduced satisfaction are agents who are not as responsive to questions and phone calls and those who ignore buyers’ budgets by showing them houses above their price limit.

“Customers shouldn’t be afraid to walk away if they feel it isn’t working,” Cooley said.

To be sure, more than eight in 10 buyers told the National Association of Realtors they were “very satisfied” with their agent’s integrity, communication skills and knowledge of the market.

Aisha Satterwhite ranks among those who are happy. She said their agent located a mid-century modern home in Silver Spring that had been “renovated from top to bottom.” They got to see the four-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home before it went on the market and bought it immediately for $500,000.

Since they closed on the purchase in June, “I have recommended him to two other people,” she said.

Vickie Elmer is a freelance writer.