You shouldn't be paying a fee up front. Some agents may do so, but that's not "the norm."
Having an agent preview a property is a good start, but as Tim notes your standards may differ from that of the agent's. Tip: Have the agent take a bunch of digital pictures of the house in its current condition and e-mail them to you.
You're right: Most agents haven't seen most of the houses on the MLS. If you call one about a particular house, that agent will pull up the MLS listing and take a look at the pictures. The agent can also go back in history and often take a look at pictures from 5 or 10 years ago (if it was on the market during that period). Tip: The MLS in my area (and likely in many/most others) will put a small copyright blurb on the pictures. That copyright often contains the year. Sometimes (and this may be part of what's happening to you) pictures from a previous listing--5 or 10 years ago--will be used in the new listing. Tip: Take a close look at the bottom of the picture and see if says something like: "Copyright 1997." That's an indication that you're looking at an old picture. Another tip: See if the exterior photo(s) correspond with the season. For instance, in September be careful if you're looking at a picture of a house covered with snow.
And I agree with you and driving past the house itself. It'll tell you something about the house. But even more important, it'll tell you a whole lot about the neighborhood.
Hope that helps.
When I am going to show some homes to a Client, I preview the homes,
so that I know it is still available, what the good and bad are, and most of all,
where the darn thing is located!
Good luck and may God bless
If you want an agent to do that kind of work for you... drive in person to every house you have interest in, then there better be a sense of loyalty from you on your part to the agent. Have you committed to just 1 agent? Have you been approved for a loan? Are you a serious buyer? Agents who do this full time have only so many hours in a week. We get paid when someone buys or sells a home, period. We don't get paid to be a taxi cab and just show houses. I find it funny the average public thinks is a realtors job to just open the front door. We offer so much more than that, but you have to be willing to do your part too as a buyer as well. The first is be serious about buying and be a ready, willing and able buyer. If you are, then you shouldn't have a problem finding a realtor who will exceed your expectations.
Almost every home on the internet looks better than it does in person. If you want real information you won't get it from just looking at pictures. It sounds like you have been calling multiple realtors and not seeking to hire one to accomplish the goal of finding a home. Your best strategy in getting the most out of a professional realtor is to be committed to just one. If you need help in finding one who will provide the type of service you desire for your area, let me know and I can help you find a good one.
Best of luck to you in your home search.