Talk about a stocked pond.

There are well over a million real estate agents and brokers who want to assist you with the purchase or sale of your home. In addition to that, there are a few dozen Internet-only brokerage firms who are also vying to perform these services for you.

Unfortunately, the mix includes good agents, bad agents, those who don’t know how to do their jobs, those who are burned out or indifferent to the needs of their clients, those who work 60 to 80 hours a week and those who are barely part-time.

Complicating matters is the way agents are compensated. Most full-time agents will charges a commission of 4 to 7 percent of the sales price. Some discount firms charge less. Knowing how flexible an agent will be with the commission might turn the “right” agent into the wrong person for the job.

The truth is, choosing the right agent can make or break your purchase or sale. It can mean the difference between enjoying (well, sort of) the experience or dreading it.

So, how do you find the right agent? Compile a list of names, interview the agents, and decide which one is a good fit for you and your family.

There are several ways to start compiling a list of prospective agents and brokers. One way is to open up your local newspaper to the real estate section and see who runs the biggest ads. You could also find the “Real Estate” heading in your local yellow pages and see who runs the biggest ads.

A better idea is to ask friends and family who recently bought or sold a home whether they liked the agent or broker who worked with them. If they were satisfied with the agent’s performance and the service they received, write down the agent’s contact data.

Another good place to find agents is at open houses in your neighborhood of choice. As a future buyer or seller, you should be visiting local open houses on the weekend in order to gauge the market.

As a buyer, an open house will reveal what kinds of homes are on the market and in what condition. You’re also trying to figure out what “true value” means in the neighborhood and how far your dollar will stretch. As a seller, you should be visiting local open houses in order to find out what your competition looks like.

When you go to an open house, make sure you take time to do an informal interview with the real estate agent. Ask about the local housing market and how long homes sit before selling. Ask how strong the buyers are in the market, and if the sellers have had their home listed for a long time.

In five or ten minutes of conversation, you will not only learn everything you wanted to know about the house you’re in, but you should have enough information to decide whether you like the agent enough to either hire him or her or at least figure out if you should meet again.

For those who assume the busiest agents are the best (an erroneous conclusion, but a popular one), your local multiple listing service keeps track of the most successful agents in the area. A listing of the top-selling agents might be published in the local paper, but if it isn’t, you can call the MLS and see if they will give you the names and phone numbers of these agents.

The point is, there are numerous ways to pull together a short list of agents you’d like to speak with.

The next step is to think about all the qualities a good (or great) agent should possess: He or she should be smart, familiar with the housing stock in your price range in your preferred neighborhoods, able to listen to what you think your needs and wants are, and most importantly, available to help out.

You might want to work with an agent who has had lots of experience working with individuals like you, or families like yours, who have bought homes in your price range. While you could get lucky working with someone who is brand new to the business, you’ll likely have a better experience working with someone who has worked as an agent for at least a year or two, and preferably longer.

Now that you have your list of names, and you know what you want in an agent, it’s time to start interviewing. Basically, you need to conduct a job interview before you hire an agent.

Feel free to ask the agent or broker for a resume, just be aware that not all agents have them (in which case, you should simply ask questions about their past work experiences). You’ll also want to ask them about the dollar value of the homes they’ve sold for sellers, and the number of transactions in which they’ve been involved during the past couple of years. You should find out the price range in which they work, what percentage of their clients are first-time buyers, move-up buyers, or sellers, whether they charge an upfront fee, what fees their firm charges for handling paperwork (if any), what communities they work in regularly, and other general information.

Many buyers and sellers put off hiring the agent until the last moment. Why? Some buyers and sellers say it’s a commitment problem – hiring the agent means they’ve committed themselves to buying or selling, perhaps before they’re really ready.

You’re the only one who knows whether you’re ready to buy or sell. But by taking your time and doing your homework, you’ll have the right agent on your home buying or home selling team, ready when you are.

Dec. 4, 2003.