Up for the quarter, down for the year? See what's happening with home affordability in our latest "Income you need to buy a home in the top 50 metro areas".

Up for the quarter, down for the year? See what's happening with home affordability in our latest "Income you need to buy a home in the top 50 metro areas".

5 ways to pick the best real estate agent

Finding the right real estate agent can be the difference between a smooth transaction and a painful one, especially if you're a first-time homebuyer. A real estate agent or a Realtor (a real estate agent affiliated with the National Association of Realtors) who works on your behalf can steer you throughout the buying process, from searching for a home to closing on it.

"A good agent can take you through all the steps of the homebuying process and make sure you have what you need to complete the deal," says Austin Robbins, a real estate agent with Prudential Georgia Realty in Marietta, Ga. When you find the perfect home, the agent should be the one to help you make a contractual offer and successfully negotiate.

So how do you find a good real estate pro? Follow these five steps to find an agent who works in your best interests:

1. Understand the difference between a buyer's agent and a seller's agent.

Not all real estate agents necessarily work in the buyer's best interests, explains Fred Sbrilli, owner of Capital Property Realty in Metuchen, N.J. In fact, if a property is listed for sale, he says, that property is being represented by a seller's agent, also referred to as the listing agent, who's obligated to work in the seller's best interests.

The job of the listing agent is to get the seller the best, highest possible offer, Sbrilli says. In order to find a real estate agent who will show you multiple homes and help negotiate the lowest possible offers on your behalf, you need a buyer's agent.

Some buyer's agents also may list properties for sale. It's possible that you may want to make an offer on one of them, Robbins says. If this is the case, he adds, the agent may offer "dual agency" by disclosing that he or she represents both your interests and the seller's interests.

2. Ask for referrals and then interview to find the right agent for you.

To find an experienced agent, Robbins advises asking family and friends for recommendations before interviewing your candidates.

Robbins points out that the interview process has multiple benefits. First, you can become more knowledgeable about the home-purchase process. Second, you can get an idea of the agent's responsiveness: "You want to feel comfortable with them and know that they can answer your questions."

What can you ask in your interview? Sbrilli suggests that homebuyers probe an agent's experience. "Ask the agents how long they've been in the business, how long they've been in the area and how long they've been selling homes in the price range that you're looking for," he says.

Agents aren't lawyers, so they don't offer legal representation or interpret the law, cautions Robbins. Still, he says, "If you don't understand what's in a contract, a real estate agent can help you."

Remember, these interviews aren't a one-way street. A good buyer's agent will want to interview you too, notes Sbrilli. "They'll want to get an idea of your needs, desires, type of home you're looking for, and price range."

3. You should know how your agent gets paid.

Ask agents about their commission structure, Robbins advises. Buyers don't usually pay anything out of pocket for the services of a buyer's agent. Traditionally, it's the seller who pays a commission of 6 percent of the home's sale price. The listing agent and the buyer's agent then split the commission, he says.

Some sellers may offer a bonus to a real estate agent for selling their properties, says Edward Mermelstein, a partner with Rheem, Bell & Mermelstein, LLP, a law firm in New York, N.Y., that specializes in real estate. Yet he notes that such an arrangement should not unduly influence the agent to steer you toward those properties, especially if they're not a good fit for your needs. "A bonus is just a way to get more people through the door," he says.

4. Talk finance.

As mortgage rates fluctuate, your ability to purchase a home in a particular price range may change. Sbrilli says that a responsive buyer's agent can preempt financial hiccups by encouraging you to become prequalified for a mortgage. He or she can also walk you through a mortgage calculator and other online tools for financial research, he says. Every homebuyer should ask themselves, "How much house can I afford?"

5. Get your agent's contract in writing.

Buyer's agents usually enter into written contracts that state they're representing the buyer's interests, says Mermelstein.

"The contract would spell out exactly what the agent's obligations are, that they represent the buyer and they have no connection to the seller," says Mermelstein. He adds that the contract should also note that the buyer's agent is not accepting 'anything beyond the customary brokerage fee from the seller.'"

Don't sign hastily without understanding your obligations, though. Sbrilli warns that if you sign this contract, it may also mean that you agree not to work with another buyer's agent during the term of the agreement.

But what if, despite your best interviewing efforts, your agent stops returning your calls or starts showing up to appointments late? You're probably better off finding another agent in such cases. Sbrilli recommends asking if you can be let out of the contract early; otherwise, wait until it ends before finding another agent.

More than likely, though, if you've done your homework to identify an experienced and respected real estate agent, you'll find him or her to be a vital ally in your home-purchase process--from shopping to closing on your new home.

One reader of HSH.com, a first-time homebuyer, agrees that a real estate agent can make all the difference. He wrote, "They can be your biggest asset in learning about the process and making you feel comfortable about a process you're not familiar with."

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