Selling your house? How to pick a listing agent

If you're looking to sell your home and don't have the adventurous streak in you to go the fizzbo (For-Sale-By-Owner) route, the first thing you'll want to do is find a good real estate agent.

But what exactly is a good real estate agent? The time-honored method of finding one is to get a referral from a friend, but as Alison Rogers begins her book, Diary of a Real Estate Rookie, "More than six million Americans move each year. If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, more than 5.9 million of them hate their real estate agent." So your friends might not be much help.

I was pondering just how I would pick a real estate agent if I were selling my home while watching HGTV's Bought & Sold, and saw the man who I think would be the perfect Realtor: Samuel Joseph of RE/MAX Village Square -- South Orange. In just three years in the business, Joseph has reached $15 million per year in sales during the toughest national housing market in U.S. history. He does that with a combination of real estate knowledge, marketing know-how, campy promotion (see photo at right) and strong people skills. I recently had a chance to chat with him about the art of picking a Realtor, and my interview with him is after the jump.

You said on Bought & Sold that you spend three times as much on marketing as the average agent. What does that money go into, other than carnival-themed open houses?

I never repeat anything I ever do. When I was a creative director for Macy's, I designed 40 different windows a year. So I took that element of my life and put it into my real estate career. I had the listing on a castle built in 1860 so I had medieval players come in and do a full medieval reenactment for the open house with guys on horseback, a damsel in distress up in the tower. It was awesome. It was just a fun, fun day.

Sounds fun! But does it help sell houses?

Sure it does. The Realtors here know I'll do something different at every open house so they end up at staying at my house and don't even see other people's listings. I walked into this house and was like "This is like Lucy's house in Connecticut." I found an "I Love Lucy" look-a-like and had the theme song playing. I dressed as Desi Arnaz. I had three agents come to that open house and I sold the house at $41,000 over asking in this market. It works for me and I have a good time. I'm really ADD. I do fun stuff that keeps me stimulated and interested. A lot of agents are just so damn stingy. You have to spend money to make money, and you want to find someone who's willing to do that.

Many agents present prospective sellers with a marketing plan that is trumped up and made to sound unique but is really just like everyone else's. For instance I recently saw one that advertised marketing on Zillow, FrontDoor, AOL Real Estate, and dozens of other sites -- but those are all just aggregators of MLS data so it's really no different from what any agent would be providing. What are some unique things I should look for/ask for?

It's just barf. All they do is plug a bunch of numbers into a spreadsheet. I don't walk in there with some big book. It's stupid. In this market I don't go back further than 30 days. Then I found the house that is most similar to their house and show them and if it's been on the house for 130 days, that tells me what I need to know. I don't cheap out with my photography or my floor plans.

What should I look for on a Realtor's website?
Yours is awesome. I love the drawing of you!

You want someone who's web-savvy. If they have just the one that their company gives them that they just plug stuff into, that tells you that they're not invested in the market. Look for something that's visually attractive and unique.

What's one question I should ask a listing agent if I'm considering hiring him?

The things you should ask are "How many buyers do you have?" or "How are you gonna market my thing?" To me, newspapers and things are just puff pieces that make you look good for the masses but an ad in the New York Times is not gonna sell your house. You want someone who has energy. When people walk through a house with you and they don't know what dovetailing is, that's a bad sign. If they don't know what they're talking about, then how they going to sell your house? Why would you work with them?

Does it make sense to just go ahead and hire the top producer in my town?

No. You need to look really closely before you pick someone. A lot of top producers just go around taking listing all day long. In other words, they don't have any buyers. You need someone who is balanced. I have as many buyers as I do listings, so I can find a buyer for my house. The people who've been around forever and are like celebrities aren't really out in the market that much. If you find somebody who's got like 100 listings, they're not gonna devote any time to yours, or they'll just shuffle it off to a team of less expensive people and you lose the whole reason you picked the agent in the first place.

Your background as a world-famous decorator gives you some pretty unique added value in terms of staging/marketing expertise. What other backgrounds will help a real estate agent in selling a house?

A little bit of design or construction experience is good. You need someone who has all sorts of experiences. You want someone who is involved in the town. If you've got some Realtor who doesn't know where the local whatever is, why would you hire him? Your Realtor's like your priest and he's gonna know everything about you. You want to know what you're getting into.
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