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How to Interview a Real Estate Agent

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One of the first couple of years I had my real estate license, I got invited to go to the beach. Orange Beach, Alabama, in fact. It sounded perfect.

My wife and I were friends with this couple that were from down there but lived in Montgomery at the time. They decided that they wanted to buy a beach condo. They let me know that they knew Orange Beach super well, since they had been going there for years. They had narrowed it down to a couple of different buildings and were ready to buy. Since I was licensed, they reasoned, why don’t I just tag along, show them the condos, and write up the offer? I get a weekend at the beach, they get their condo, and they help their buddy (me) get some easy commission money. I accepted their invite and started packing my bathing suit and my zinc oxide.

My problems started when I tried to prepare for the business side of the trip. They had forwarded me some ads of the condo units that they liked. Some came furnished. Some had boat slips, some didn’t. Some were near a marina they liked, some were out near Fort Morgan. Some units allowed rentals and that was supposed to add value. Some buildings did not allow rentals and that was supposed to add value, too.

My head was spinning. I was lost and suddenly felt totally inadequate to help them. What if they bought a condo and ended up hating it? What if it was because of some reason that we could have and should have discovered in our research? What if they end up blaming me because I didn’t know what I was doing? What if we lost friends just because I wanted to cash in on an “easy” commission?

I had my real estate license and was legally able to help them. But should I have been the agent to help them?

The way Alabama real estate law works has some bearing here. There is one department of the state government that handles real estate law.  It is the Alabama Real Estate Commission. This Commission oversees all of the legal aspects of the real estate law in the State – exams, continuing education, licensing, agent ethics, and the like.  Therefore, when a person sits for (and hopefully passes) the real estate exam, that person has a statewide license. Someone that is a licensed real estate salesperson in the state of Alabama can legally sell a home in Arab, Alabama, just as legally as they can a home in Andalusia.

We agents get this question a lot, “Can you sell in (fill in the blank place in Alabama)?”

The operative word in the question is can. The answer is always, “yes,” from a legal standpoint. As mentioned above, any agent that is licensed in the State of Alabama is licensed for the entire state and can legally sell anywhere in the state.

A better question for a consumer to ask, in my opinion, is “Are you the best agent to help me in (fill in the blank place in Alabama)?”

The “best agent to help me” question should lead to a lot more questions like, “how long have you been selling there? How many properties have you sold there recently?” and… “Are you a member of the local MLS?”

The MLS question is really another way to ask, “do you have access to all of the latest information of properties for sale now, and what properties have sold for in the past?

Maybe now it is appropriate to talk more about the term MLS. It stands for “Multiple Listing Service.” There are many different MLSs across the state and the nation. The National Association of Realtors defines MLS as, “…. a private offer of cooperation and compensation by listing brokers to other real estate brokers….. MLSs are private databases that are created, maintained and paid for by real estate professionals to help their clients buy and sell property.” It is a really big subject, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just remember that any local MLS (like Lake Martin’s) is owned and operated by the local Association of Realtors.

The Association of Realtors is a professional organization. It is voluntary. It is not legally necessary to be a member of the National Association of Realtors nor a local unit like the Lake Martin Area Association of Realtors. However, membership has many benefits to agents and even more benefits to the people that those agents serve. So many, in fact, that I can’t cover them here in this space.

My point is that it is important for anyone considering buying or selling real estate to understand that a local MLS is the most accurate database for that area.  I cannot say all, but I can say that about 99% of all real estate sales information starts at the MLS level. Since the MLS is not government owned, but owned privately by the local Realtor association, each agent must decide for his or herself to be a member. Each agent must decide if they want access to that information.

At this point, you might be thinking about Zillow. You might wonder why anyone needs the MLS when they can just look on Zillow. Guess where Zillow gets its information? Yep, the local MLS. Zillow (and the like) are not originators of real estate sales data, only aggregators. There is many a slip between the cup and the lip, and that is why sites like Zillow are so rife with inaccuracies.  So many, in fact, that I would need a lot more space to cover that phenomenon. If you don’t believe me, just look your own home up right now.

This is why I think that if a consumer is seeking the help of a real estate agent, they should place a heavy priority on access to the most accurate and most current information about that market. I think that any agent that is serious about helping people in an area should be serious enough to be a member of the MLS in that area. To consider the inverse, lack of membership indicates a lack of seriousness in my opinion.

That is why if I were a consumer, one of the first questions (among many) that I would ask when interviewing an agent would be, “are you a member of the local MLS?”

My answer in the above Orange Beach example was, “no, I am not a member of the MLS down at the beach.”

I ended up helping them find an excellent agent down there. He helped them look around, and actually suggested a property that was more suited to their needs than the ones they had found themselves. They bought it, and were extremely happy. I was glad I referred them to the agent and learned a big lesson that has stuck with me to this day.

Note: I originally published this article in my column in Lake Magazine. I am proud to write about Lake Martin Real Estate for Lake Magazine and ACRE – the Alabama Center for Real Estate.