How soon should I find a real-estate agent? I am probably going to buy my first home in September and am assuming I will need an agent. So when should I contact one?
I would say ASAP. I have recently been in your situation (first-time home buyer) so here's our experience:
- We got an agent from the start. We started to look in August, aiming to close around end of the year, and ended up closing in December. We had a month period in the middle where we were not looking but otherwise almost all that time was spent looking so 3 months is definitely not too much time.
- We did skip some good options in the first weeks since we felt we did not see enough and don't want to buy just yet. Looking back at it it probably was a mistake (one looked like a really good deal, though I'm not sure we would end up getting it, but if I knew what I know now I probably would have not passed on it). We could probably be more prepared if we did some stand-alone research - like just going to open houses, etc. but we didn't. However, that was one-of-a-kind deal and then we didn't see anything we liked for quite some time.
- We chose agent basing on the advice of friends who recently worked with them and we did not regret the decision. I think this is the best way to choose - it's virtually impossible to distinguish good agent from bad one until you invest some time with them and since you have only 3 month wasting a month on a bad agent might put you in time-constrained situation. So solicit references from everyone you know and talk to agents that make their clients happy :)
- Now for what the agent does. Our agent helped us first with choosing the areas we want to look in, set up the searches. Then they helped us to plan visits (we mostly did it on weekends, and looked 5-10 houses each time, so took some planning to organize), arrange it with seller agents and homeowners, getting keys for houses that aren't occupied, etc. When we started doing offers, they helped us navigate the paperwork, understand what we are signing, what options we have, what are the steps and the timeframes, etc. We had to go through and sign a stack of papers several inches high, literally, so the help of somebody who actually knows what these talk about and seen them before is very useful. Of course, this is for US, where such transactions inevitably causes a ton of papers to be signed, some locations may have more simple procedures but in the US I think the services of somebody who can navigate this paper jungle is essential, otherwise you have a big chance of signing something you shouldn't or not checking proper checkbox and ending up losing money.
- They also put us in contact with mortgage consultant which handled our mortgage needs and turned out to be quite good and efficient (we checked other offers too but that one ended up best on service and prices - not the rock-bottom cheapest, but cheap enough to be competitive and excellent service). We could probably have figured that part out by ourselves if needed, but the agent helped us to know who to contact, what to ask for and how all the process should look like, which for first-time buyer is very helpful. There's a lot of moving parts in the process and without knowledgeable person it's sometimes hard to figure out how they should work together.
So I would say find yourself a good agent ASAP and then start looking and use them to help you guide through the process. Note that the agent wants the process to be completed as soon as possible (they get paid only when you close) but you should not feel pressured by it - it's your money on the line and it's probably the biggest deal in your life so far, so don't be afraid to take your time and ask them about anything, it's their job to help you.
It depends, really.
Real estate agents help you identify the areas, price ranges, types of houses you want to look at, and your abilities. But you can do all that on your own.
Real estate agents help you with surveying the potential houses, they can help you enter the property and look around, negotiate inspections, connect with the mortgage brokers, and advise you about potential problems. Some of these things you cannot do on your own (for example, entering the property, unless its an open house).
Real estate agents are the ones dealing with the escrow, sending offers and receiving counter-offers, and depending on the jurisdiction you may or may not do it on your own.
Bottom line, you should contact a real agent of your choosing when you're ready to actively start shopping, and see what are the services the agent offers that you would need. Based on that you can decide when to start using these services.
If you're planning on starting shopping in September, then you should call an agent then. If you're planning on moving in in September - then you should call an agent now.
Note: if Buyer's Agents operate in your area, a good one can be tremendously helpful, especially for a first-time buyer. Having someone experienced whose fiduciary obligations explicitly put them on your side of the negotiations makes the process less stressful.
As far as how to find one: that's a Shopping Question and out of scope, but i'd suggest asking friends in the area who have relatively recently purchased a house for recommendations. Skill is part of the equation, but finding someone who really listens to what you're looking for matters a lot.
(A friend of mine is fond of commenting that she got along much better with one of the partners in the agency she worked with, who was good at listening to the buyer's needs and finding good possibilities they might not have considered... but that in fact it was the other partner -- less good at listening to the buyer but better at keeping after the seller -- who successfully closed the deal once she was ready to make an offer.)