How buyer representation is practiced varies among brokerages or agents so this is a great lead-in to getting the best service possible.
I am going to speak in general terms as there are several things that may create a range of fees.
Some buyers who live outside the area may rely upon their agent to preview properties prior to their visit(s) and do additional evaluation and analysis before coming to view property. This can save an out-of-area buyer a lot of time especially if the wants and needs tend to create a broad search area. This is often the case with buyers seeking commercial properties (e.g. bed & breakfast inns, etc.) or large tracts of land offering views, agricultural or timber harvesting potential. This can be especially helpful to understand the locale of a property such as in pastoral areas where a neighbor may have elected to display of their assets in the front yard in a permanent standing collection. Given the time saved as a result of the agent's work, the fee may reflect the value delivered and may be partly paid up front instead of at closing.
Some agents practice buyer agency with the expectation that the buyer will pay a set fee regardless. Others structure their relationships so that all fees due the agency for buyer representation are paid by the seller at closing. In the first case, that may result in you being obligated to pay your buyer agent some money at closing. Other agents are willing to accept the listing brokerages' offer of cooperation as payment in full for those properties in the multiple listing service in which case you would not have an additional obligation to your buyer's agent. In these situation, your buyer agent may negotiate with the listing agent to ensure that the total commission is shared fairly and evenly, but that does not affect your costs.
You might want to know how your buyer agent will handle any incentive payment offered by a seller. Such bonuses generally need to be disclosed to all parties so it is reasonable to have your buyer agent explain how you will participate.
In addition to multiple listing offerings, experienced buyer agents will expect to represent you in purchasing property from unrepresented sellers (FSBOs) as well as in pursuing candidate properties that are located by the efforts of you and/or your agent. You will want to be made aware of any arrangement between these sellers and your agent's brokerage.
If you are not agreeing to pay a set fee to the buyer agency or want to ensure that the seller will always pay your buyer agent's fee at closing, then there are ways to make your offer to purchase property so that this occurs. Experienced buyer agents will guide you through this.
If you are buying a foreclosure or a property where the seller is doing a short sale having a experienced buyer agent is invaluable. Because you may not know whether the home you fall in love with will turn out to be a foreclosure or short sale, but sure to evaluate agents' experience in these types of transactions.
I trust that this information is helpful in evaluating buyer agents. Give me a call if you have any questions.
Chuck Braxton, REALTOR