First off, I want to warn you that this is a very long post. Your question is simple, but the issues it raises are complex. I try to give brief answers to Trulia questions whenever possible, but itâ€™s hard for me to be brief when there are many things for a consumer to consider.
I'm going to echo Melissa's recommendation that you work with a member of NAEBA (of which I'm not a member) or a member of the Massachusetts Association of Buyer Agents (MABA, of which I'm both a member and director). Both organizations place the issue of consumer protection at the center of their missions, whereas most Realtor-related organizations have the success and well-being of real estate agents at their core.
It's always advisable to work with a buyer's agent whose company won't have the listing for any home you may be interested in buying. There are too many potential conflicts of interest, because negotiations take place throughout the transaction, not just when you make your offer. You have the right to expect full, fiduciary-level representation from start to finish when you buy a home, and you'll get that with a NAEBA or a MABA agent. You'll never have to sign a form, required by the state, asking you to consent to dual agency with a MABA or NAEBA member.
Even when dual agency is done 100% correctly, the agent cannot give any information or advice that helps one client at the expense of the other. So you could be in the middle of the process and, if your agent or their firm has the listing for the home you want to buy, you could be suddenly fending for yourself, without the full, unfettered advice of your agent.
And so-called designated agency is only a little better than dual agency, IMO. In this scenario, the company is in dual agency. That is, the company has agents representing both the buyer and the seller in the same transaction. But the company passively designates the two agents to represent the two clients.
Designated agency presupposes that every agent will be able to protect 100% of a clientâ€™s information from 100% of the other agents in the firm 100% of the time. They claim there will never be a faxed offer or a pre-approval letter that's seen by, or a conversation overheard by, another agent within the office who might represent the seller or an agent who might have a competing buyer-client for the property youâ€™re interested in. Having once worked in one of the largest real estate companies in Massachusetts, I know that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to construct a 100% effective firewall.
Also, some companies offer bonuses to their buyer agents whose buyers purchase a home listed by that company. So, as a buyer, you might have reason to be suspicious if your agent is talking up the benefits of a home listed by his or her firm. You donâ€™t have that concern with a buyerâ€™s agent whose company doesnâ€™t also represent the seller.
Some companies even encourage listing agents to have a separate buyerâ€™s agent on their team, so the listing agent (and firm) can retain a piece of the action and stay within the rules of designated agency. But how can you, as the consumer, be absolutely sure that no information is shared among these agents, particularly when the teams have worked closely together for years, or theyâ€™re made up of husband/wife or mother/son agents?
You can find more information about MABA at massbuyeragents.com.
I also recommend working with agents who have attained the CRS designation. Only 3.7 percent of all Realtors have the CRS, yet we handle approx. 25 percent of all the residential real estate sold in the U.S. Unlike most Realtor designations, CRS requires a combination of classroom instruction and years of practical experience and proven production. This high threshold means if youâ€™re working with a CRS, youâ€™re working with someone whoâ€™s either been in the business for a very long time, or theyâ€™ve helped clients buy or sell lots of property within only a few years. Either way, youâ€™re very likely to get an agent whoâ€™s seen it all before, and who really knows what theyâ€™re doing under any market conditions.
A good buyerâ€™s agent will have no vested interest in which property you choose to buy. This interest could come from some incentive within their company, or it could come from a territorial limitation. I began my career based in Brookline, Newton, and Jamaica Plain. Iâ€™ve also had experience showing and helping buyers buy in about 90 different cities and towns throughout Eastern Mass. since then. I regularly work in all of the cities and towns the other people have talked about in their answers, and I have no fear of venturing into a new city or town outside the fringes of the Boston metropolitan area. So I have no vested interest in trying to point anyone to a specific town or area.