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Why You Should Use an Expert Agent vs. a Discount Service Agent (Redfin)

When Redfin first launched, I thought it was going to change the way real estate would be bought and sold forever. In the years since its introduction, I was surprised that not much had changed. Redfin’s system is pretty straightforward – you do the searching, you schedule visits with a showing agent, you make offers with a second agent who only does offers, and then you get a refund of the buyer’s agent commission if you get the house. For someone who likes to do everything themselves, it seems like a great deal because you get half of the agent commission back. The reality is that very few sales are this straight forward and easy. There’s always some negotiation, some unforeseen problem, and rarely is it smooth sailing into the close.

My friend shared his experience working with a Redfin agent [3] and it went well. He didn’t encounter any problems whatsoever, the home was relatively new, there was no competition, and it didn’t matter that he was his own advocate. He got the strong feeling that if there had been problems, he’d be entirely on his own. And that’s a fair position to be in because you are getting paid half the agent’s commission. You can’t expect the same level of service for half the price, that’s just unreasonable. Even he knew that he lucked out and saved money as a result.

In our case, we opted to go with a full service expert realtor, Christina Elliott of Keller Williams Realty Baltimore [4] (we bought our first house with her on our side), for a few reasons unique to her. We love our first house and she did great then as a rookie (it was her first transaction). She’s had several years under her belt and she’s helped all our friends with positive results.

This post is a bit of a monster but that’s how the home buying process is (check out some of my posts from the first homebuying experience!) … a seemingly never ending string of fires to put out. 🙂

Here are the main reasons why you might want a buyer’s agent (and why I was glad I had one):

Creativity & Persistence

The home we made an offer on [5] wasn’t listed for sale. We had been looking on Redfin, using the MLS system, and visiting open houses but we weren’t seeing anything that we really loved. This next home we’re moving into will be our last for the next twenty-plus years, so we really needed to love it.

At first, we chalked it up to the winter. Homes don’t get listed until the weather becomes nicer and people start thinking about the next year. As the months passed and the weather got better, we still didn’t see any homes. That’s when Christina thought to pull a list of withdrawn listings from the last three years. Withdrawn listings are homes that were put on the market but then withdrawn, i.e. never sold.

We looked through the list and found three that we liked. She sought out the owners (the owners were in Maine), convinced them to let us visit, and eventually made an offer on one of them. This creative and persistent approach is not something your average agent would do and it’s not something you could do yourself.

Hand in hand with creativity is flexibility, I didn’t know until a little later that Redfin doesn’t submit offers less than 10% of asking and they will not partake in short sales or for sale by owner. That’s understandable because they’re running the numbers and they know the probability of an offer under 10% winning, or a short sale, or even the headaches of a FSBO just aren’t worth it to them. Not to be all mercenary but agents will do what you tell them to (also, our realtor answered our emails and took our calls late into the night…).

Domain Expertise

The home we’re buying is on well water and has a septic tank. It has several different heating systems, including coal. It has a pool, it has an agricultural tax subsidy (woodland preservation related), and its existing driveway goes through another plot of undeveloped land owned by the current owner.

My knowledge about any of those things is extremely limited and while Christina wasn’t a heating system expert or a woodland preserve expert, she knew who to contact to get an answer for our question. She knew which inspections to order, in what order, and made sure everything got completed. We only saw the end product, which was zero headaches, so we can only imagine what she had to deal with.

If you’re a capable DIY person with an extensive local network, you might feel like you don’t need that help. That’s a fair assumption, except an experienced agent will be able to negotiate on your behalf to get the seller to do it. Doing it yourself is fine, but isn’t it better to get someone else to do it?


Creativity and domain expertise are important but the agent being the facilitator is key. The buyer’s agent works with the sellers agent (if there is one) and gets the process moving forward. She’s talking to the lender, the title company, as well as the seller to get things moving towards the close. While I suspect discount agents are something similar, it’s difficult to pay as much attention when you’re writing a dozen offers a day and juggling so many sales. Expert agents rely on referrals and know that they need to perform in order to continue to grow their business.

A Vested Interest

Finally, and this is ultimately the most valuable reason for working with an agent, especially one without a million clients, is that they have a vested interest in seeing the transaction close. Some discount agents are paid on salary or contracts written, not closes, but expert agents are paid on successes. Our agent and her team have devoted a lot of time to helping us find a home and they’ve spent time learning about what we need in a home. They want to find the right home, push the negotiations, and close on time. You simply don’t get that from someone who takes home the same paycheck regardless of the outcome. If your business relies on referrals, you work harder to succeed.

In the case of our purchase, there was no seller agent and we felt first hand what happened when there was no one on the other side driving the process like an agent would. People have lives, they have jobs, they are busy doing the thing they were doing before we showed up wanting to buy their house. They do things a lot slower and items drag on a lot longer. Questions don’t get answered. With no one driving because they only get paid when the sale closes, the process drags out longer. It’s not inconsequential and actually creates more stress.

It also can result in increased costs. A lot changes when things drag on, things like interest rates, new buyers showing up with more money, and other little things you didn’t think could happen. Just look at interest rates the last few weeks, we got one at 3.625%, and as I write this the rate is over 4%.

Agents Have More Time

I feel like we were a special case but like every parent who thinks their kid is special, I suspect we aren’t all that special. Our home buying process was trying because there were so many moving parts. The home inspection revealed some issues that required further research (a crumbling retaining wall, servicing a wood/coal fired heating system that worked in conjunction with an oil and electric, as well as some minor issues), we needed to coordinate bringing out additional inspectors and other specialists.

The original property was larger and subdivided into three lots. The current owner was going to build a driveway that required extensive work (like high five figure estimates) so that you could get access to all three lots. Well, we discovered partway through they were putting it on hold so we needed to get an easement put in to allow the current driveway to exist (it cut through one of the other undeveloped lots).

The property had a large part of it designated as agricultural woodlands, which means an acre’s taxable base is just $300 rather than the current market rate (which in the Washington DC metro region, is much much higher than $300/acre). We needed to research whether that would stand or if property taxes would skyrocket upon the sale. That required finding a forester, researching current law to see if we still apply, etc.

That’s just the big stuff and to be 100% honest, I don’t have the time to deal with all of that in addition to our other responsibilities. Now, if I didn’t trust our realtor 100%, I’d have done more than the marginal research I did. All I did was read county government websites and their descriptions, which is not what you do when you buy a house. You call experts, pay them for their time and guidance, and you have them review documents. That’s why you pay an agent because they will do that for you and because they’ve done it before. They know the people to call because they did it last month.

Selecting Your Agent

When you work with a service like Redfin, you’re assigned an agent. That’s not how it should be, you should be interviewing them and “hiring” them as you would any other service provider. Would you work with a financial adviser simply because they were assigned to you? No. You’d interview them, you’d look at their credentials, their history, their statistics, and then you select one. After our process, I believe that agents are not equal and that services like Redfin perpetuate the idea that they are (to their financial advantage of course).

Our plan is to live in this next house for the next 20-30 years and we went with the person that gave us the best opportunity to achieve our goals (and all signs point to success). If you’re looking for an agent, even if you’re outside this local area, I’m sure Christina would love to put you in contact with one of her colleagues across the country. It’s always good to get a few names so you can interview them and pick the one right for you.

A Caveat

I do want to end this post on one note – I never used Redfin outside of their search engine. My friend did and spoke highly of it. We didn’t because we worked with Christina in the past, were very satisfied, and she did well by many of our friends. We also never saw a house via Redfin that we liked so my opinions aren’t based on first hand experience with the process of Redfin. I believe I understand the service though and I think it’s extremely valuable, but I do think that having an agent who you use throughout the entire process is extremely important.

Have you recently purchased a home with or without Redfin? Did you run into as many troubles and potential pitfalls as we did?

(Credit: woodleywonderworks [6])