Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - May 10, 2013

Real Estate Matters

Selecting the right agent is key to success

by Michael Repka

Technology has really changed real estate. Back in the day, agents had phonebook-sized Multiple-Listing-Service (MLS) publications that provided the current status of homes on the market. Once they identified a particular property, they were left to find the location in a book of maps. Information was more cumbersome and agents that knew a particular area well thrived. As a result, there were more agents that were specialized and their clients benefited from their expertise.

The Internet, dashboard GPS and satellite images make it easier for agents to pull information about different types of properties and cover a more vast geographic area: This is not necessarily a good thing. Nowadays, an agent may show a condo in San Jose in the morning and then an estate in Hillsborough after lunch. A tear-down on Monday and a partially completed new construction on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, a quick review of a condo complex's website will not provide much insight into the demeanor of the condo board members or the traffic conditions during rush hour. Similarly, an agent showing his or her first $8-million property may not be well versed in high-end building elements or the waitlist at the best private schools or country clubs.

Off-MLS properties: As clients navigate the current seller's market, with its pronounced shortage of homes for sale, many seek opportunities to buy homes not published on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Some of these homes are "off-market" because the last-minute gussying up and staging is not completed yet and others will never come to the market because of the sellers' desire for privacy or a uniquely structured sale. Either way, off-market sales have become a growing, albeit controversial, portion of overall sales.

One of the biggest challenges that face agents who cover a wide breadth of markets is the lack of "insiders'" knowledge about the properties not currently listed on the MLS. While a well-connected Palo Alto agent likely knows of more than 20 homes that are not yet on the market in the Palo Alto/Los Altos Hills area, they may not know of any in San Jose. Conversely, an agent who focuses on San Jose is unlikely to know of properties in and around Palo Alto.

Selecting an agent: The first step in selecting the right buyer's agent may be introspective. Giving some thought to one's individual needs and desires may help with the identification of the right agent. For example, a couple who has already narrowed its search to Los Altos Hills or Palo Alto hills and wants to keep the kids in Palo Alto schools may be far better served by an agent who specializes in hills due to these properties' unique legal issues, construction elements and the local amenities available to local residents. Conversely, an older couple with property tax and estate-planning concerns may find more satisfaction with an agent familiar with those types of issues.

Unfortunately, many agents consider themselves to be an "expert" in just about every type of sale. Interestingly, the newer the agent, the more likely this observation holds true. Thus, a better approach may include a review of perspective agent's websites and marketing materials, which will often give an accurate account of any real specialty.

Types of specialists: Generally, experienced agents focus on either a particular geographical location (e.g., Palo Alto) or a type of sale (e.g., investment properties, condos, estates in the hills or new construction). The third option is that they may focus on a particular type of buyer (e.g., retiring couple or first-time buyers). There is nothing wrong with working with different agents in different areas, although it is best to be up front with each of the agents about what area is within their search area.

There are enough facets to each type of sale and each area to make specialization desirable. At a minimum, buyers may want to inquire about the number of similar transactions that the potential buyer's agent has completed in the past.

Michael Repka, managing broker and general counsel for DeLeon Realty, Palo Alto, formerly practiced real estate and tax law in Palo Alto. He serves on the Board of Directors of the California Association of Realtors. He can be reached at MichaelR@DeLeonRealty.com.

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