Most home sellers are looking for a real estate agent who can do two things:
Sell as quickly as possible for the highest amount possible.
Uh, good luck.
Finding an agent traditionally has been done through word-of-mouth and personal contacts. Agent X sold the neighbor's house, so let's try her. Or the accountant who does our taxes knows agent Y, so let's try him. That can work out fine, or maybe not.
In the past few years, online companies have sprung up that claim to do a much better job of matching sellers with agents who are especially knowledgeable about their neighborhood and experienced in selling their type of home. But are these services really better than asking a friend for a referral or jotting down agents' phone numbers as you drive around town? We put two of the services to the test.
The best known company is HomeLight, founded in San Francisco in 2012 and bolstered by more than $50 million from investors. HomeLight uses sales and agent records from Multiple Listing Services and other sources to match sellers with what are supposed to be the area's top agents. Agents must register with HomeLight to be eligible for referrals, and they must pay 25 percent of the commission if a deal goes through with a client referred by the company.
I went on HomeLight's site, which pledges to "Sell your home faster and for more money." It asked me for my name, address, the type of home (house, condo etc.), estimated value and the time frame in which I hoped to sell.
Within a minute, the names of four agents popped up on the screen, along with the names of their real estate firms and a map showing the locations of sales they've had near my home in the Shore Acres section of northeast St. Petersburg.
As a licensed but non-practicing Realtor, I have access to the Multiple Listing Service and to reports that show every sale in which a particular agent was the listing agent, selling agent or both. So I was able to verify exactly how many sales the four have had overall, and where they were.
Agent No. 1 — Office in Brandon, overwhelming majority of sales in Hillsborough County.
Agent No. 2 — Office in St. Petersburg, many sales throughout Pinellas County but fewer in northeast St. Petersburg than in other areas.
Agent No. 3 — Office in St. Pete Beach, many sales throughout Pinellas but fewer in northeast St. Petersburg.
Agent No. 4 — Office in St. Petersburg, far fewer sales than the other three and mostly in the west part of the city.
As HomeLight said, all of these agents had many years of experience. But none had done much volume in Shore Acres or other parts of northeast St. Petersburg in the past two years.
Within a few minutes, I also had emails from two HomeLight account executives — one welcoming me to the service and the other saying my "top match'' was Peter Chicouris, "a fantastic agent with extensive experience selling single family homes" like mine.
Since I've been covering the real estate beat, I've often talked to Peter, who has been a great source of information about the foreclosure market (He has sold many bank-owned homes).
As foreclosures began to dry up, Peter looked for other ways to augment his St. Petersburg-based business and began working withe HomeLight about a year ago. From an agent's standpoint, he said, it's been a happy partnership.
"The nice thing about HomeLight is it does take care of the agent that has been in business and continues to stay in business by showing their history of sales," he said. "It allows for the customer to post a testimonial so consumers can see it. It also shows your credibility and knowledge of an area because every transaction is on the maps."
So far, Peter said, his firm has gotten about 40 referrals from HomeLight of which "three or four" have resulted in a sale with a few more deals under contract. He especially likes the fact that the fee — 25 percent of the agent's commission, which HomeLight collects at closing — is a one-time charge.
"They're not asking for an additional referral fee so if you end up selling five more properties (involving the same client), it's kind of a win-win for the agent," he said. "In this business, gaining a relationship for the future is worth paying a referral fee."
Next, I talked to Wendy Lockhart, another of the agents on my recommended list, who has been licensed since 2007. Wendy, whose office is in St. Pete Beach, said she began working with HomeLight about two years ago when it first became active in the Tampa Bay market. She's noticed that many more agents have registered since then — meaning more competition — but she appreciates HomeLight's selectivity in recommending agents.
"You have to meet certain criteria; you can't be a very new agent with very few sales," she said. HomeLight referrals have resulted in about 10 sales, she says.
I also called Ray Chadderton, the agent in Brandon. He said he was "thrilled" about his year-long connection with HomeLight but was somewhat vague about the number of sales resulting from it.
So here's my bottom line in regards to HomeLight's recommendations: Even though neither has many sales in Shores Acres, I'd feel comfortable as a seller with Wendy and Peter because of their knowledge of the Pinellas market overall. Ray agreed that his Hillsborough-centric firm probably wasn't the best match for me in St. Petersburg. I didn't contact Agent No. 4, who has the most experience but appears to have dramatically slowed down in the past two years.
For comparison, I tried a smaller and less well-known matching service called UpNest. It also requires agents to sign up but charges a 30 percent fee for seller referrals. I entered basically the same information as for HomeLight and got back three recommendations, with names and phone numbers:
Agent No. 1 — Office in Tampa, no sales in St. Petersburg.
Agent No. 2 — Office in Tampa, no sales in St. Petersburg.
Agent No. 3 — Office in Seminole, very few sales in 2017 and mostly for properties under $100,000.
None of those agents fit the bill for my home or area so I didn't contact them. I also had email proposals from two other agents — one who has sold nothing in the past year and one who works almost exclusively in northern Pinellas County. And unlike HomeLight, UpNest doesn't provide any detailed agent sales history.
Based on my own experience, it appears that HomeLight does a much better job than UpNest of matching sellers with agents. But HomeLight didn't find agents who do a lot in northeast St. Petersburg, possibly because none who specialize in that area have registered. So while two of those agents it recommended would be fine, I suspect I'd also still do what a lot of sellers do: ask around.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate