One of the regions’ leading real estate professionals will help to judge this year’s West Midlands Property Awards. Ian Cornock is lead director for the Midlands

How do you choose a real estate agent?

When it comes to choosing real estate agents, “we don’t have the  information that we have about other service professionals,” says  Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of  America, in Washington, D.C.
However, there are things you can do  to pull back the curtain and accurately assess a real estate agent’s  past performance and potential success with your home. Whether you’re  the buyer or the seller, here are seven ways you can find out more about  your agent before you hire.

1. Talk with recent clientsAsk  agents to provide a list of what they’ve listed and sold in the last  year, with contact information, says Ron Phipps, president-elect of the  Chicago-based National Association of Realtors. Before you start calling  the names, ask the agent if anyone will be “particularly pleased or  particularly disappointed,” he says.
With past clients, “I’d  like to know what the asking price was and then what the sales price  was,” says William Poorvu, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School  and co-author of “The Real Estate Game: The Intelligent Guide to  Decision-making and Investment.”
And, if you’re the seller, ask if these past properties are similar to yours in price, location and other salient features, Poorvu says. What you want is someone who specializes in exactly what you’re selling.
Another good question for sellers is: How long has the home been on the market?

2. Look up the licensingStates  will have boards that license and discipline real estate agents in  those states, says Phipps. Check with your state’s regulatory body to  find out if the person is licensed and if there have been any  disciplinary actions or complaints.
Some states, including  Virginia, Arizona and California, put the information into online  databases that consumers can search. “But I think very few people do,”  says Robert Irwin, author of “Tips & Traps When Buying a Home.”

3. Pick a winnerPeer-given  awards count, says Phipps. One that really means something is the  “Realtor of the Year” designation awarded by the state or local branch  of the National Association of Realtors.
“These agents are the best as judged by their peers,” he says. “That’s a huge endorsement.”

4. Select an agent with the right credentialsJust as  doctors specialize, so do real estate agents. And even generalists will  get additional training in some areas. So that alphabet soup after the  name can be an indication that the person has taken additional classes  in a certain specialty of real estate sales. Here’s what some of the  designations mean:

  • CRS (Certified Residential Specialist): Completed additional training in handling residential real estate.
  • ABR (Accredited Buyer’s Representative): Completed additional education in representing buyers in a transaction.
  • SRES (Seniors Real Estate Specialist): Completed training aimed at helping buyers and sellers in the 50-plus age range.

If  the agent calls himself a Realtor with a capital “R,” that means he’s a  member of the National Association of Realtors. By hiring a Realtor,  “the most important thing you get is an agent who formally pledges to  support the code of ethics,” says Phipps.
Five years ago, one-third of real estate licensees were Realtors, he says. “Now, it’s half.”

5. Research how long the agent has been in businessYou  can often find out how long the agent has been selling real estate from  the state licensing authority. Or, you can just ask the agent.
“If they haven’t been in business five years, they’re learning on you and that’s not good,” says Irwin.
Ultimately,  what you’re looking for is someone who is actively engaged in a  particular area and price range, says Phipps. You’ll want to know what  knowledge of those two factors they can demonstrate and “what kind of  market presence they have,” he says.

6. Look at their current listingsCheck out an agent’s listings online,  says Brobeck. Two places to look are the agency’s own site and Find Real Estate, Homes for Sale, Apartments & Houses for Rent –®, a website that compiles properties in the Multiple Listing  Service into a searchable online database.
Most buyers start their search on the Internet, and you want an agent who uses that tool effectively. “A key thing is an attractive presentation on the Web,” says Brobeck.
You  also can look at how closely the agent’s listings mirror the property  you want to buy or sell. Are they in the same area? Is the price range  similar? And does the agent have enough listings to indicate a healthy  business but not so many that you’d just be a number?

7. Ask about other houses for sale nearbyA  good agent should know about other available area properties “off the  top of his head,” says Irwin, who wrote “Tips & Traps When Buying a  Home.” Mention a house in your area that’s sold recently or is for sale.  If the agent knows the property and can give you a few details, that  means he or she really knows your area, he says. Says Irwin: “You want  someone like that who’s on top of the market.”