7 signs you should dump your agent (© Fresh Meat Media LLC/Getty Images)

Angela Joplin thought she and her husband had found the right real-estate agent to help them land their first home in San Diego.

The busy agent with a prestigious firm seemed like a good choice initially, but Joplin said it became clear as the months wore on that this agent didn't have their best interests at heart. The agent made the couple pull up all of their own listings — only reluctantly agreeing to go out and see a few with them — and then arrived late most of the time.

"She treated us as though we had this air of desperation about us, like we were bottom dwellers in the market and there were so many more important people she had to respond to faster," Joplin says.

She called the couple about houses way out of their price range and told them they shouldn't waste their time looking at the inside of the houses, but to instead just drive by and call her to put in an offer if they liked the looks of the place. Even so, she often wouldn't get back to them in time to deliver a winning bid.

What's your home worth?

The couple wound up making nearly 20 offers in the two years they worked with this agent and didn't wind up with a house.  Still, Joplin held on to the relationship, she says, because she didn't know that this wasn't the way most agents operated and wasn't sure how to end it.

"I didn't know what to expect," Joplin says. "I thought she was like any other normal agent."

Buying your first home is one of the most important decisions of your life. Yet most people lack in-depth knowledge of the process and aren't sure what an agent should do for them (or not do, for that matter).

When you lack experience, how can you tell if you have a good, bad or incompetent agent working for you? Here's a list of the seven tip-offs that it might be time to call it quits with your agent — along with seven practices of the good ones.

1. The agent doesn't listen
Right off the bat, an agent should ask you several important questions:

  • How long have you been looking?
  • Are you pre-qualified and, if so, for what type of loan?
  • What time frame are you looking to move in?
  • How much are you looking to spend?
  • What type of house and how many bedrooms are you looking for?
  • Are good schools important?
  • What neighborhoods are you interested in?

If he keeps showing you things that are outside your chosen neighborhoods, school districts or budget, then you might have a problem. Ditto if you are looking for a single-story home on a quiet street and he keeps showing you condos in a busy complex on Main Street.

"If the client says to me, 'I want a three-bedroom house with a fireplace,' and I show them something different, I need to explain and say why I'm doing it," says Deborah Engel, an accredited buyers agent with Prudential California Realty in San Diego.

Good agent: Before you get in a car with an agent to look at that first home, he should go over the process, how he operates and what he charges, and get a good understanding of your "needs, wants and wishes" says Adorna Carroll, a Connecticut broker, real-estate consultant and course instructor.

Moreover, a good agent should preview most of the homes he is trying to sell you, so he doesn't waste your time. If a house is a big fixer inside or has an enormous dead tree in the backyard, your agent should know about it before you agree to go, says Dorcas Helfant-Browning, principal broker with Coldwell Banker Professional in Virginia Beach, Va., and a past president of the National Association of Realtors.

2. She's inexperienced
Real estate is a full-time job. If your home search is someone's side job, you should probably take this as your cue to move on.

Someone who works another job in addition to her real-estate gig probably isn't able to scan the listings as often as she should — at least twice a day to catch everything — and you can bet she isn't able to get back to listing agents, mortgage brokers and others as quickly as a full-time agent.

Moreover, if the agent lacks experience, contacts and credibility, she might have a harder time securing that winning bid for you, everything else being equal, Carroll says. Listing agents like to work with other agents that they know can get the deal done, she says.

A few signs that they're green:

  • She doesn't make sure you're pre-approved for a loan before they get in the car with you to look at listings.
  • She doesn't prepare a detailed market analysis with comparable values for the same type and size of property when you're getting ready to make an offer. And they can't tell you the reasons you might want to offer more or less on a property.
  • She can't fully explain parts of the sales contract, or what they can and can't do for you under the law.
  • She doesn't inform you about homeowner associations and restrictions, if you are looking at a planned community or condominium complex.
  • She violates fair housing rules by talking about the ethnic makeup or religious background of people living in the neighborhoods you're interested in.

Good agent: A good agent will, of course, be licensed by the state — you can check licenses here — and have the transaction experience and confidence to negotiate effectively in a competitive market. 

Preferably, she should have some sort of additional training, such as Accredited Buyer's Representative (ABR) certification or be a graduate of the Real Estate Institute (GRI), to let you know that she is circulating in the real-estate community and committed to the business.