The vast majority of homebuyers like — even love — their agents; in the National Association of Realtors most recent survey of homebuyers and sellers, more than 96 percent of those who recently bought homes said they liked their agent, and 85 percent said they would work with that agent again.
But, as always, there are exceptions to this rule: buyer-agent combos that seem to be full of friction.
In those exceptional cases, a common complaint is that buyers feel their agent simply doesn’t understand or listen to them, as evidenced by the disconnect between their vision for their home and the homes the agent shows them. And no one likes to be misunderstood, especially when trying to get professional help making wise decisions about the financial, location and brick-and-mortar property characteristics that will shape many areas of one’s life for years to come.
Most often, in my experience, this is an issue of a disconnect between a buyer’s fantasy home and the reality of what their budget can buy on the market. The agent shows the buyer homes that the buyer sees as falling short of his location, size or stylistic standards, but in fact, the agent is showing the best homes that the buyer can actually afford. (This is otherwise known as having champagne wishes on a beer budget.)
Other times, though, there is an even deeper communication issue: The buyer hasn’t been clear, or the agent truly hasn’t heard him out. To avoid this issue and make sure your agent is picking up what you’re putting down, in terms of your preferences for your home, here are a few tools for vividly communicating your vision to your real estate agent:
1. Digitally. If you want to communicate your style and aesthetic preferences to your agent, consider creating a digital notebook on the Web application Springpad. Here’s the thing: You can start keeping this notebook as soon as you start thinking about buying a home — you don’t have to wait until you have an agent to do it.
And you can use photos you snap on your phone while you’re out in the world, images from homes you see on design and magazine websites and even MLS listing pics, and you can annotate them with lists of features you do and don’t like about the homes or the images, links to the MLS listings, even voice memos or videos you shot yourself. And you can do this all privately, for as long as you want before you kick-start your house hunt, then share the notebook with your agent when you do get one on board.
A word of caution: If you truly want to use a digital notebook to communicate your vision with your agent, then fill it with reality-based images. Don’t just stick every fantasy home you see on the “Real Housewives” or “Million Dollar Listing” in there — use a separate board for that. On this board, keep to homes with discrete features, looks, etc., that you hope to find in the home you eventually buy and own.
2. Show your agent listings/homes that you like. Do this: As you’re ramping up for your house hunt, start online, looking at listings that you love; if you’re not the type to save images digitally, print out the listing and keep a file folder collection of them. Better yet, run your numbers (down payment, etc.) in an online mortgage calculator to get a very rough idea of your price range, then get out into the world and start attending open houses that come up for homes that are similar to what you hope to buy. Collect the fliers of the homes you visit and like, to show to your agent, once they are engaged.
And this doesn’t have to stop when you actually initiate your house hunt, in earnest. Don’t just sit back and wait for your agent to send you listings you like — though your agent should and, most likely, will. Be proactive: When you see listings you like online, send those over to your agent. When you’re out in the world and happen to come across homes for sale that seem like what you’re looking for, use one of the mobile apps, like Trulia, that will detect your geographic location and serve you up the listings of the nearby homes for sale. Then send them to your agent. (Frankly, sending your agent images and listings of homes that are not even for sale can be helpful at resolving communication roadblocks.)
Passively waiting to be shown homes you like is simply not an efficient way to get house hunting satisfaction, nor is it necessary for 21st-century homebuyers, given the unprecedented access you have to home listing information online.
3. Let your agent show you what she thinks you are saying you want, irrespective of price. This can be especially helpful for people relocating to a new area, or first-time buyers who are still trying to wrap their heads around what kind of home they can get at various price points. If you are concerned that your agent is not listening to your wants and needs, but she insists that she is, ask her to show you at least one house that she thinks reflects your vision as she understands it, irrespective of the price at which that home is listed.
I have done this myself, and have seen it done, maybe a dozen or so times, and let me tell you: It is the single most powerful way to go from feeling misunderstood to understanding the truth of the market, instantly. Nine times out of 10, the agent will show you precisely what you want, but it’ll be much more expensive than the budget that you’ve given her. While there’s always a little emotional letdown involved when you realize that the issue is your pocketbook and not your agent, it’s also empowering. It positions you to either up your budget, if that’s possible, or to be thoughtful and conscious about the compromises you will need to make to stay within it.
4. Write out your vision of home. I’ve long encouraged buyers to do a writing exercise at the very beginning of their house hunts, something I like to call the Vision of Home exercise. More accurately, though, what I’m proposing is that you set aside an hour and actually write down your vision of the life you want to live, once you are warmly ensconced in your home. It should cover everything from:
Family: Who will live with you in the home, throughout the time you plan to own it — any parents or extended family members? Any kids that you think will move out?
Work: Where will you work? And how much or little do you want to work? How will you get there? What does your commute look like? What does your income trajectory look like for the time you expect to be in the home? Do you have — or plan to have — any side jobs or businesses? Do you ever work at home, or want to?
Activities: What does everyone who will live in the home need to be able to do there? Are there any hobbies, work or other activities that require space at home, inside or out? Do you spend your weekends walking to the corner yoga studio and brunching, or do you spend it hitting up Lowe’s to prep for your DIY-home improvement handiwork?
Most of the time, buyers start communicating their vision with some sort of boilerplate house-hunting form, checking boxes for the numbers of beds and baths, etc., that they want. Starting with a free-form vision of home before you move to that level of detail will help you get clear on the big picture you’re trying to achieve with your home and, in turn, help you communicate the overarching goals and details of your house hunt in a clearer way to your agent.
If you’re comfortable with it, you might want to go so far as to let your agent review the results of this exercise, or cover the big picture it creates with her; this gives you the advantage of putting your agent’s experienced mind and networks to work to creatively spot properties that might work for you. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your life vision, though, feel free to boil it down to a list you can share of your house-hunting wants, needs and deal-breakers.
5. Good, bad, ugly feedback sheet. Once you’re actively working with your agent and viewing properties, you might need to fine tune and course-correct your agent’s understanding of what you’re looking for.
One of my favorite tools for doing that is to simply give written feedback for each property, bucketing that into the good, bad and ugly (i.e., deal breaker-level disadvantages) of each home, as you see it. Then, at the end of every property tour, you can more readily remember what you liked and disliked about each property, even if you saw five or eight or more, and you can communicate those likes and dislikes in a way that empowers your agent to constantly uplevel the listings she shows you in terms of her alignment with your wants and needs.