For the vast majority of people, buying or selling a home will be the single largest economic transaction in their lifetime, so you want to make sure you have someone whom you trust. Why? Because an agent, by definition, is someone who works on your behalf. I work in the Toronto real estate market – me and 50,000 other agents. Yes, you read that correctly. There are about 50,000 real estate agents licensed in my city! The truth is, most of them go year-in-year-out without ever making a sale. That’s why you’ll want to do your due diligence when selecting an agent to work with: Meet with multiple candidates, read about them, ask questions. Here are 13 red flags (13 for good luck, right?) to look out for when hunting for the right person to represent you in the real estate market.
This is fundamental. They can be polite, shrewd negotiators and polished in every regard, but if they’re not listening to you, you won’t get what you need. Not only that, it will be impossible to create a foundation of trust. If you ask them a question and they don’t give you a straight answer, that’s a big red flag! Say you ask what they think a property is valued at, and in their response, either you feel like you’re being fed what you want to hear, or they’re just using a cheesy line like “Well, what do you think it’s worth?” then they’re not really looking out for you. You’ll know they’re not listening when they’re not even attempting to address your basic question. So how could you possibly trust them to answer the myriad big questions, address issues, provide real support to you, etc that come with buying or selling a home?
This is a specific pet peeve of mine that really drives me crazy. You know, grind-my-gears kind of crazy! If you, the client, is willing to give your mobile phone number to your agent, they should be willing to do the same. Sometimes a phone call is just the best way to get information quickly, and in this business, things can move very fast. Also frustrating is when they do give their cell phone number but when you call, you can’t reach them, or it gets forwarded to an assistant. You didn’t hire an assistant, did you? What’s arguably worse is when they won’t give it out to prospective buyers. These people are in sales! Why are they hiding? In this market, you can’t afford to not be found. You have no idea how much money you might be leaving on the table. Won’t that suck for you, the seller? Ultimately this falls under the general expectation that your agent should be available to you. Take it as a red flag if your agent is not willing to be available, or if they only give the illusion of availability.
Generally, you can spot unprofessionalism pretty quickly, simply because unprofessional people tend to not know better. Say you meet at their office, you ask how they’re doing, and they say, “Yo, last night was sick! I got so wasted last night, bro!” If that happens, just immediately pack up your belongings and leave without saying anything. They’re not worth your time. Other unprofessional conduct is less obvious. Maybe they start telling you about another client of theirs, by name: “Oh yeah, I sold Ryan Gosling’s house on Palmerston. Got to meet him. Cool guy.” That sounds okay, maybe, right? Actually, that’s a bad sign. If they’re sharing information about other clients to you, they might share your information with other clients too. And finally, don’t trust an agent that feels the need to insult other real estate agents, like, “Don’t go to Cathy, she’s not a closer.” First of all, you don’t know if it’s true. Second, a good agent (a good human being!) will be able to stand on their own reputation without bringing other people down.
All their marketing is about them. They say they’re in the top whatever percentile. Their face is plastered all over the place, their lawn sign is their face and in a little corner the words “for sale”. So, are they working for you? Or are you just a means to an end? Confidence is good, overconfidence is bad. Take it as a red flag if the agent gives themselves a nickname like “The Closing King,” or “The Queen of the East End” or some other nonsense. Let’s be real here, nicknames are earned, given to you by your peers. Chances are if someone starts calling themselves “The Duke of the Danforth” or whatever, then they’re probably not going to have much to back that up. And if that’s their modus operandi, then they’re probably too focused on themselves to be focusing on you. The agent shouldn’t be constantly talking, “Me, me, me.” A good agent will ask about “You, you, you.” Let’s not forget who hired whom.
A big part of selling a property is marketing. So, you’d be surprised how often you’ll notice either amateur marketing choices or just simple marketing blunders. Avoid these red flags like the plague. Is their website up-to-date and presentable? Or is it Flash-based, (or worse) does it have one of those old spinning “@” GIFs? Do their marketing materials appear professionally designed? Or are they clearly using MS Paint and Comic Sans font? Are they using a decent camera to take photos of the property? Or they using an old Blackberry Bold? If they have a decent camera, are they a decent photographer, or have they hired a professional? Or are they taking photos of your plants, your cat or are they even right side up? You want someone who will give you the best shot of getting the best deal, and the more eyeballs your agent can get on your home, the better your chances. Their mistakes don’t have to be as egregious as the examples above, but your aesthetic sense should guide you. If you’re turned off by something, chances are other people are too.
“You don’t want that house! You want this house!”
“I think you should work with my partner now instead of me!”
Wait a minute, you hired this person, right? So what’s with the pressure tactics? You should feel confident that your agent is working for your benefit. If they’re really pushing, and it doesn’t feel right, step back and take some time to reconsider. It’s natural to feel nervous when making a huge commitment, and a real estate deal is no exception. And sometimes advocating for the client means reassuring them that they’re making the right choice according to what you know about them. But if your agent seems very insistent that you make a decision when you’re not ready, maybe they’re not the right fit for you.
You can feel someone’s desperation in your bones. It’s unsettling. The desperate agent might seem nervous, unsure, preoccupied, insistent, fixated, or dodgy. The archetype for this is Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross, or the cartoon version of him, Gil Gunderson from The Simpsons. This is somewhat the opposite of overconfidence from earlier, and also liable to employ pressure tactics, like above. If they’re desperate, they’re thinking about self-preservation, not working to get you a good deal. They may resort to begging or other pathetic tactics to try to get a deal. Honestly, it’s sad, but you have to do right by yourself and stay away from these individuals.
You might see this brandished as a badge of honor, but beware: This boast may be a dubious deception. It’s meant to make you think, “Oh, this person must be a good negotiator!” But that’s not necessarily the case, especially if you undercut your asking price. If you worked at McDonalds and you told your boss that you believed a Big Mac is only worth $1.00 but then you sold one “over asking” at the menu rate of $5.25, then, your boss will not be impressed with you, and rightly so. Let’s remember, you’re the boss in this situation.
I’m not saying these people who say they “Always Sell Over Asking” are always lying. That’s impossible for me to know. But I encourage you to ask them how they do it, and if they aren’t able to give you a detailed breakdown of what makes them so much better at negotiating and marketing, it’s probably just hot air.
If “I Always Sell Over Asking” really means, “I Always Undercut My Client’s Asking Price,” then you might want to consider hiring someone who will be willing to “Always Offer A Strategic, Educated Best Price Offer For Their Client” instead.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t sound as sexy on a flyer.
Oh, great, your agent is part-time? Okay. Are you a part-time buyer or a part-time seller? Are you going to be living in your new home part-time? Probably not. This is a pretty simple red-flag because part-time means they’re not going to focus on you full-time. One might ask, “But what if I’m their only client? ” Of course full-time agents will have many clients, and it not possible for them to focus on a single client all of the time, but the fact that an agent is only part-time means they probably don’t have the same experience to represent you properly because they haven’t accumulated the hours of hard work. Similar to this is if you find an agent that admits they don’t specialize in your area of real estate, like, “Yeah, I don’t do a lot of residential. I’m mostly commercial, but I’ll represent you.” Don’t bother. There are many ever-changing details to this job that you’re better off going with someone who has made the choice to specialize. It’s not like you have a lack of choice.
I have a saying, “tripping over a nickel to save a dime, always costs you a quarter.” Getting a lower commission may sound like you’re getting a good deal, after all, a lower commission mean more money in your pocket, right? But why would they want to do that? Is it because their services aren’t worth as much as other agents? Are they going to do less work to make the deal happen? Is this person desperate, like we discussed before? This isn’t necessarily terrible, but it can be a “You get what you pay for,” type situation.
Let’s say a home’s asking price is $500,000. You have a choice between two agents: One agent asks for a 2.5% commission, and another agent asks for 2.0% to sell the home. If it sells at asking, 2.5% earns that agent $12,500 while 2.0% earns the other agent $10,000 (minus expenses and income taxes etc of course). That’s a difference of $2,500. You might think, “Great! More money for me!”
But what if the agents aren’t equal in skill? Let’s say the 2.0% agent will sell the property at asking, meaning after the commission you take away $490,000. But, if the agent asking for 2.5% will actually work harder and get a sale of $505,000, then the agent earns $12,625, while you earn $492,375. Over $2000 more than if you went with the 2.0% commission agent. And let’s bear in mind, $5,000 over asking isn’t a huge windfall. In this case, the “more expensive” agent is actually the better deal.
This may or may not be a red flag, and it’s very hard to tell if you got a better deal until after the fact. Just remember that there’s probably a reason an agent tries to sell you on a lower commission, so look for other red flags in addition. Know what you are getting, know who you’re hiring and ensure they are working to get you the most money, not just a listing to add to their resume.
I find this one baffling. How many reviews for plumbers or doctors or lawyers have you poured through to make sure you get the best one, but when it comes to real estate agents, for some people, “Oh yeah, my friend’s cousin is one of those. I’ll just use them!” Obviously, everyone is probably someone’s cousin. Chances are the highest selling agent in the city is someone’s cousin. If that’s who the cousin, or sister, or uncle or whoever is, sure, by all means, go for it. But find out who they are first. I only mean to say here that nepotism does not a real estate agent make. You know better than to blindly trust someone with a massive financial transaction because you’ll do your due diligence.
This is where your questions come in handy. Even if you’re familiar with the area you’re looking in, ask about it. You might find out something you never knew before and you’ll test their knowledge. If the agent seems to dodge the question, or gives something vague in response, or says they’ll have to get back to you, then don’t waste your time with them. The real estate cliche of “location, location, location” is true. If they’re clueless about the location, or they aren’t even from this city, find someone else who knows it like the back of their hand. You have options.
Finally, I mean this one as a general note. This flag is subjective: Trust your gut. If you get an odd feeling from them, or for whatever reason they make you uncomfortable, find someone else. This is about trust, after all. It can be hard to define, but if you’re getting a weird vibe off of them, there’s probably a reason you just haven’t fully understood yet. Do they seem shady somehow? Is there a creepiness to them? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the reason of “I just don’t like them.” It’s your choice. You’re in control here. Never forget that.
You’re a smart person, capable of making good decisions with good information. I hope you found these tips to be helpful. I’m a true believer that actions always speak louder than words, so let the agent’s track record do the talking. That’s why I stand by mine. Keep these red flags in the back of your mind when you’re talking to a new agent. Feel free to bookmark this page to refer to it later, or share on social media to let others know what to steer clear of when searching for the right agent.