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Selling a house? The right agent is key to success

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A nurse in her mid-30s was planning her dream wedding to a computer specialist of the same age. Each owned a house, and their financial plans were predicated on the sale of her property, a small gray bungalow in an elegant city neighborhood with stately trees.

There was one problem: Once the house was put up for sale, it didn't draw any buyers. There was nothing particularly wrong with the place. But months passed without so much as a nibble. The reason was that the listing agent the couple had hired showed little interest in marketing the home.

Once their listing agreement expired after three long months, the couple hired a new agent who, happily, was far more diligent. The house was sold in two weeks. But the lengthy delay had a disruptive effect on the couple's finances.

''You don't want someone to just throw your house on the Multiple Listing Service and forget about it, hoping a buyer will step forward. You want someone to give you a wholehearted marketing campaign,'' says Robert Irwin, the author of several real estate books.

Irwin, the father of the computer specialist in this true story, says the couple was overly casual when they chose the friend of a friend from the other side of town as their first listing agent. By contrast, their second agent was locally based and was much more focused in her marketing plans.

Finding the right agent can be trickier than many sellers realize. Here are several tips on how to go about it:

• Exercise extra caution on agent selection if you live in a cooling market. Regardless of the conditions in your market, you shouldn't hurry the agent selection process, Irwin says. Indeed, you should be all the more careful if you're selling your place in a neighborhood where buyers now have the upper hand.

The list price of a home is an especially sensitive matter in an area where buyers don't need to compete with each other over a purchase. 'Good listing agents are very assiduous and precise in fine-tuning the list price of a property. They know that people in a buyers' market are in no mood for lengthy negotiations or counteroffers,'' Irwin says.

• Consider more than one candidate for listing agent. Blaine Rickford, a mortgage company executive since 1978, says homeowners should always interview at least three potential listing agents before agreeing to hire one.

Obviously, friends and family members are a reliable source of referrals to agents. But, as Rickford says, your neighbors could be an even better bet. 'By asking around in your neighborhood and looking at `For Sale' signs there, you'll quickly identify brokers who are really in your loop,'' Rickford says.

As he points out, all effective agents have designated themselves a ''farm.'' This is the area of geographic specialization where the agent is actively engaged in marketing and selling homes. ''You don't even want to interview an agent whose farm is outside your area,'' Rickford says.

An insider can effectively network to get word out about your property to other agents working with buyers in the same community.

• Avoid hiring a friend or family member to list your home. Irwin cautions about the risks of hiring a listing agent with close ties. 'The big disadvantage of doing business with friends and relatives is that you won't have the guts to say `no' to them when you should. You might fear putting your relationship in jeopardy,'' he says.

• Look for a listing agent who will be responsive to your calls. Because the success of an agent's career depends heavily on networking, one with strong communication skills is likely to do a better job for you than one who's slow to respond.

''All agents have cellphones. And under ordinary circumstances, they should call you back within a matter of minutes -- if only to tell you they're in the midst of closing a deal and when they'll be free to talk longer,'' Irwin says.

• Make sure you pick an agent who will give you a tailored marketing plan. Strong agents recognize that every home is unique and should be priced and marketed in accord with its size, condition and special characteristics, Irwin says.

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