Luke Mullins

An effective real estate agent can be a big help to consumers looking to buy or sell property. But not all real estate agents are created equal. Consumers who end up with a dud throw additional risk onto what's already likely to be the largest financial transaction of their lives. Choosing a real estate agent is a major decision, says Ron Phipps, a broker with Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I. "So you want to make sure -- whether you are selling or buying -- that you have somebody who is effective for you." But with so many options, how do you pinpoint the best broker? To help consumers struggling with this question, U.S. News spoke with a number of brokers and compiled a list of seven ways to avoid a crummy real estate agent:

1. Locate candidates.

Begin your selection process by putting together a slate of qualified candidates. Start by speaking with friends and relatives who have recently bought or sold a home. What did they think about their agent? Would they use him or her again? "Get some really good word-of-mouth recommendations from people who have used an agent," says Pat Vredevoogd Combs of Coldwell Banker AJS-Schmidt in Grand Rapids, Mich. "That is a key piece to whatever you are doing." Although often overlooked, title representatives can also be good sources for referrals, according to Joshua Dorkin, founder and chief executive of, a real estate networking and information site. "I tend to think title [representatives] are probably a source that folks don't really think about," Dorkin says. "But they are going to know who the good agents and the bad agents are because they are the ones sitting in the room at the end." Dorkin also recommends that prospective home sellers keep their eyes peeled for properties in their neighborhood that have sold quickly and inquire about the agent responsible.

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2. Run background checks.

Once you've got a handful of names, it's time for a bit of amateur detective work. Plug the names into Google or your local newspaper's online search engine and see what pops up. "If you Google somebody and you can't find their cell phone [number] and you can't find their E-mail and you can't find their [website] -- you don't see them marketing themselves on blogs and various websites, on Twitter and Facebook -- it probably means that they don't necessarily have the marketing skills in this day and age to do the job." At the same time, Phipps says consumers can even run a background check on the agent through their state's real estate licensing board's website. "Make sure that the person you are [considering for your agent] has a license -- It may seem obvious but sometimes you forget that," Phipps says.

3. Conduct interviews.

After narrowing down the field of candidates, meet the agents face to face. "The main thing is to sit down with the Realtor and make sure that you feel comfortable with that individual and you feel like you can have a working relationship with them," says Judy Moore of Re/Max Landmark Realtors in Lexington, Mass. "Because it is definitely a partnership between the two." But make sure to tell each agent upfront that you are interviewing others, says Elizabeth Blakeslee of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Washington, D.C. "Don't surprise them with it after the agent has spent a couple of hours with you," she says.

4. Establish experience.

In addition to getting a feel for an agent's personality and professionalism, there are several key qualifications consumers should establish during the interview. Determining the agent's experience in your target market is perhaps the most important. "You really need to ask them where they work most of the time: Where do you live? Where do you work? What area of town are most of your transactions in?" Vredevoogd Combs says. Consumers should look for agents with extensive experience in the area where their transaction is taking place. Vredevoogd Combs uses the analogy of a patient searching for a surgeon to perform an appendectomy. "Are you going to be his first patient, or has [the doctor] done 10,000 of them?" she says.

[See 10 Rookie Home Buyer Mistakes to Avoid.]

5. Consider communication.

Consumers need to be sure that their agent will communicate effectively with them as the process unfolds. "Those who are Gen Xers want to only talk to you via E-mail and text, and there might be some agents who might be of an age where E-mail and text aren't the major ways of communication," Vredevoogd Combs says. "Misunderstandings happen when you don't have all of that worked out upfront." But regardless of the form of communication, consumers need an agent who is responsive and easy to reach. "And you can test that," Dorkin says. "Call them on off hours and see if they respond and how quickly they do respond ... If they don't get back to you [promptly], that is a huge red flag."

6. Know resources, commitment.

An agent who has robust resources will often be able to produce better results for their clients, Dorkin says. He suggests inquiring about the additional resources -- such as a staff -- that the agent can bring to bear on the transaction. "A bonus would be if somebody has a team or an assistant," Dorkin says. "That's just kind of a good sign that they have got their business structure together." He also recommends that buyers steer clear of agents who work in real estate only part time. "They are probably doing that and something else, whether it is raising a family or doing another job," he says. "You do want somebody who is fully devoted to being either a sales or a buyer's agent."

7. Call references.

Finally, consumers should ask agents for a list of clients they have represented recently. "References are good -- but the thing that most people don't do is they don't call them," Phipps says. "Call them." When speaking with references, consumers should try to find out as many details as possible about the agent's performance during previous transactions, Dorkin says.