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Take Along an Agent in Search of New Homes

SMART MOVES. One in occasional series.

September 12, 1993|ELLEN JAMES MARTIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate

Are you so weary of old-house problems that you've vowed to make your next home a newly built one? Then take the advice of experts and bring along a new-home specialist on your model-home tours.

The reality is that most real estate agents spend the majority of their time selling used properties on what's called the "resale" market.

But a select few have special expertise in the new-home market. They know local developments, builders' reputations and--perhaps most important--how to negotiate for a good price and terms.

"There are agents who specialize in new-home sales. They can talk turkey with you and tell you about construction techniques," said Monte Helme, a vice president for the Century 21 real estate chain. "They know much more than what's in the glossy sales brochures."

Most people don't take an agent with them when they scout new developments. Rather, they rely on salespeople who work at the model homes--typically employees or paid representatives of the home builder.

Granted, those who work for home construction companies can be very knowledgeable. Still, an experienced outside agent can also provide important insights--helping you choose the right model, locate the best lot and select options such as a dining room chandelier or kitchen tile. What's more, the specialty agent may be able to help you get a better deal on your home, said Robert Irwin, author of "Tips and Traps When Buying a Home," a McGraw-Hill paperback.

For decades, Americans have shopped for new homes the way they shop for new cars--relying on the guidance of showroom salespeople. Negotiation seemed out of the question, Irwin said.

"In the past, builders set the prices and terms, and you could take it or leave it. I'm not sure it would have made a whole lot of difference whether you brought an agent with you," he said.

But profits are harder to come by these days. And while a new home's base price is still firm for some builders, many have become more flexible in setting prices for options, as well as terms of the deal, Irwin said.

"Since builders have had to become more flexible, a good agent can negotiate a better deal for you," he said.

Here are some pointers:

--Take an agent with you on your initial shopping expeditions.

Most home builders will share a sales commission with an agent who brings a buyer into a development. It's called "co-oping."

But if you show up at Camelot Estates the first time without an agent, and later decide you want an agent to assist with a purchase there, you've got a problem.

In many cases, your builder will not pay the commission of an agent who didn't introduce you to the development in the first place.

--Consider engaging a "buyer's broker."

By tradition, real estate agents are legally beholden to represent the interests of home sellers--even when they have been engaged by a buyer to help find a home--so they're limited in their ability to negotiate on behalf of a buyer.

These days, though, you can select an agent who actively advocates your interests--a "buyer's broker." Even major realty chains are training traditional agents to also work as buyer's brokers, so you have a wider choice.

"Any real estate broker can become a buyer's broker," Irwin said.

Remember, however, to ask the builder whether he will pay the commission of your buyer's broker, just as he would pay a commission to an agent acting in a traditional role who brings you to his development.

--Search out an agent who is a new-home specialist.

"The vast majority of real estate agents work the existing-home market. They're really not exposed to new construction," warned Helme, the Century 21 executive. "Ask them how a roof is built, for example, and they can't tell you."

There are many ways to get recommendations for an experienced agent. Calls to major local builders can yield names of real estate agents whom they see most often and respect.

"The builders are fairly knowledgeable about agents. And they're not a bit timid about recommending someone," Helme said.

The sales manager of a real estate office also can be a good bet for names, said Karl Metsch, an agent for the Prudential real estate chain.

But when calling a manager, be sure to specify that you're looking for a new-home specialist. Otherwise, you're likely to get the name of the next generalist--perhaps a mediocre agent--who happens to rise to the top of the list, he said.

Many managers use a rotation system for making referrals, he noted.

Even if you choose a generalist, pick an experienced agent who has a proven record in the real estate field, said Irwin, the real estate author.

"You always want a performer working for you," he said. "The last thing you want is your cousin Fred's brother-in-law who just happens to be in the business and desperately needs the work."

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