You wouldn’t walk into a courtroom without a skilled attorney by your side.

Why enter into what could be the biggest financial transaction of your life without the right real estate representation?  An experienced, market-savvy agent can help you buy or sell a home quicker and at a preferred price.

            In many areas, highly competitive seller’s markets – low housing inventory and appreciating home prices coupled with continued low interest rates – mean that house hunters and sellers alike need expert guidance, an all-star agent who can be counted on to knock one out of the park.

            “Buyers are looking for an agent they can trust, someone who knows the neighborhoods intimately, but who also has the relationships and the proactive nature to find homes that aren’t yet listed on the market,” says Mark Kitching, associate partner with Partners Trust, Los Angeles.

            For sellers in the most competitive markets, an agent with extensive knowledge of contracts who knows how to attract and handle multiple offers is especially valuable.

            “They need a full-time agent with experience in a tough seller’s market,” says J.P. Piccinini, broker/owner of JP and Associates Realtors, Plano, Texas.

            More than half (53%) of buyers polled about what they value most when choosing an agent said they wanted someone who could help them locate the right home, and 12% said they wanted an agent who could help them negotiate and close a sale, according to the National Association of Realtors’ 2015 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.

            The qualities buyers value: agents who are responsive, knowledgeable, and have a flexible schedule.

            “An agent should be able to answer their phone and get back to clients in less than an hour,” says Mark Ferguson, agent with Pro Realty, Greeley, Colorado.  “Knowledge of great lenders, inspectors, and title companies is important.”

            Sellers want agents who do more than the traditional 3 Ps, says Riccardo Ravasini, Keller Williams, New York: put a listing into the MLS database, put up a sign, and pray.

    “Sellers want someone who will creatively market their unit, including promoting the listing to nearby residents and to targeted media outlets, and who will leverage his or her own network of interested buyers and investors,” says Ravasini.

    When offers shower down in a bidding war, a broker’s negotiation skills are key, says Patrick Beringer, RE/MAX Metro Realty, Seattle.  While many consumers think it’s a smart move to negotiate a lower commission rate for an agent, Beringer says, “If an agent is so eager to cut their commission just to get your business, how effectively will he or she negotiate on your behalf?”

            Choose an agent carefully.  The right one can swing your sales price 5 to 10% higher; the wrong one can lead to no sale at all, says L.A. agent Mark Kitching.  A poor agent is a costly mistake for both buyer and seller, he points out.  “A seller can be sued by a buyer for poor guidance and failure to disclose things that the agent left out.  A buyer can be left with a home that’s a bad investment,” Kitching says.

            Ask family and friends for referrals to agents with whom they were satisfied.  Attend local open houses and meet with agents.  Search online and read agent reviews.  And be prepared to ask plenty of questions.

            “Ask how long they’ve been in the business, how many deals they do a year, what areas they specialize in, what kind of negotiator they are and if they have time in their schedule to devote to your needs,” suggests Kitching.  “If you’re a seller, ask what strategy they would implement to sell your house and why.”