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Whether you're buying or selling, the difference between having an average real-estate agent or a superstar can mean thousands of dollars in your pocket. It can mean selling your home for top dollar (stellar) or losing the house of your dreams to a more organized buyer (decidedly not stellar).

Doug and Heather Cowan knew they'd found their dynamo agent in James Nellis II, an award-winning partner at The Nellis Group, Washington, D.C. After two years of shopping in the highly competitive McLean-Falls Church, Va., market, the Cowans found a home they loved, only to learn when they were touring it that another buyer already had made an offer. Nellis worked against the seller's one-hour deadline to help the Cowans pull together a competing offer that the seller accepted.

BingWhat's the best way to find an agent?

"I knew that I had to do everything in my power to get them that house," Nellis says. Here's how he pulled out all the stops for the Cowans:

  • He called the seller's agent to ensure a competing offer would be considered.
  • He phoned his business partner, who's also an appraiser, to confirm the property's value.
  • He tracked down the Cowans at a nearby Applebee's where they had stopped for dinner. As Heather and Doug fed their impatient baby and entertained their 4-year-old, Nellis used his tablet PC to upload a contract and the addendums covering a home inspection, radon inspection and lead-based-paint inspection.
  • He phoned the Cowans' lender at home to ask him to e-mail a note authorizing a loan on the property at $21,000 above the asking price of $829,000.
  • He crafted a letter for the Cowans to sign, telling the seller why they loved the house.
  • With just minutes to spare, he e-mailed the proposal with the Cowans' electronic signatures to the sellers and their agent.

You want a pro like this in your corner when you make what may be the biggest transaction of your life. So how do you spot one among the thousands of people selling real estate? Fortunately, a little legwork and the right questions go a long way.

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Referrals: Good as gold
In the recent boom, nearly 600,000 newcomers joined the National Association of Realtors, roughly doubling its membership between 2000 and 2006.

"That must mean that we have literally hundreds of thousands of agents that have never sold a house or have sold one to (perhaps) a family member or friend," says Stefan Swanepoel, an industry researcher and CEO of RealtyU, a network of agent-education schools in 42 states.

The best way to find an agent, real-estate professionals say, is by getting a recommendation from someone you trust. Not only is your friend's experience the best predictor of your satisfaction, but, since an agent's personal network is his lifeblood, he is likely to work harder knowing that a friend or client will hear about his performance.

But even with a good referral, you owe it to yourself to find one or two other promising candidates to screen. You can locate agents in newspaper ads, by stopping in at open houses or by cruising the area where you want to live, noting agents' names on the for-sale signs. You also can sample some agents' styles at real-estate classes sponsored by local brokerages or community colleges. That's how many of Shannon Williams' clients found the TriBella Realty agent in Austin, Texas. Williams teaches free seminars on first-time home-buying, flipping houses and beginning retirement investment planning. The classes are "a good way (for clients) to meet different people and judge them," she says.