Choosing the right real estate agent is one of the most important decisions that you will make when you’re ready to buy a home. A good agent can help you navigate the buying process with minimal stress, whereas a not-so-good agent might make the process harder on you (and your wallet) than it needs to be. Your goal when you’re ready to choose a real estate agent is to find someone who you communicate well with, and who shares your same goals—not just about buying a house (that’s the goal for all buying agents, after all), but doing so in a way that prioritizes your needs as a buyer and gets you the best home possible for the best price possible.

There is no magic formula for finding a great agent, though there are certainly steps that you can take to improve your chances. Below, we’ll go over what all buyers should look for when they’re going to choose a real estate agent to help them with their home search, plus how you should go about finding that perfect agent.

What should you look for when you choose a real estate agent?

Behind every good real estate agent is a set of skills that make them a top choice when you’re looking to buy a home. So what are these skills? They’ll vary depending on your needs, but at the very minimum you should choose a real estate agent who has these five key qualities.

Good communication
Successfully buying a home is as much about communication between buyer and agent—and buying agent with selling agent—as it is about open houses and inspections. Be sure to hire an agent who you communicate well with, and who is willing and able to answer any and all questions that you might have about the home purchasing process.

Reliable experience
It’s important to ask a potential agent how long they’ve been buying and selling homes, but don’t forget to dig a little bit deeper into their experience. Ask about their average list-price-to-sale-price ratio, as well as the amount of time it typically takes their clients to find and close on their new home. You’ll want to choose a real estate agent who has a proven track record of getting buyers into homes fast (and getting them a great deal, too).

Strong local market knowledge
Every market is different. Whether you’re buying in a city, the suburbs, or the country, you’ll want a real estate agent who knows local market trends and patterns like the back of their hand and who can help guide you through the nuances of your specific locality. A good way to gauge local market knowledge is simply to ask. Inquire about the basics, like average time on the market for newly listed homes and average sale prices, but also ask about any unique trends regarding your local market that you should know about.

Positive reviews
Online reviews are one of your best assets when it comes to choosing a realtor. Read all of the reviews that you can find before selecting who you’ll work with, and look for an agent whose previous clients have only positive things to say about their experiences. (If there are any complaints, be sure to distinguish between complaints about the individual realtor versus complaints about the stress of the home buying process itself.)

Personal rapport
Ultimately, you want to choose a realtor who you get along with. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so it’s important to work with someone whose company you enjoy, and who you just genuinely feel understands your needs. Trust your intuition on this one—if you’re getting bad vibes, trust your gut and find somebody else.

Ready to find an agent? Here’s how to do it

Finding a great real estate agent to help you buy a home won’t take you too much time if you know where (and how) to look.

Start by asking friends, families, coworkers, and anyone else whose opinion you trust on the matter if they have any local agent referrals. Previous buyers are one of your best assets for finding an agent, since they can speak honestly about their own experiences. Plus, you can trust that if someone you know is giving you a recommendation, chances are it’s because they enjoyed working with that agent and would work with them again.

If you don’t have anybody who you can ask for a referral, head to the internet. Use an online realtor search to browse agents in your area, then pull out a few names of agents you’re interested in working with and do a bit more research. Look to their reviews and their portfolio for information that can help guide your decision. Be sure to consider whether you have any unique needs that you’d like to find an agent with experience in, for example if you’re looking to do a military relocation or if you need a short term rental during the buying process.

And just like when it comes to hiring a moving company or renting a storage unit, don’t stop your search at just one name. Find at least three different real estate agents who you think might be up to the task of helping you buy a home, and briefly interview each of them to see if they check off the traits listed in the previous section. Don’t be afraid of coming off as overly picky—this is a huge investment you’re making and you need to be sure you find someone who can make it as painless as possible.

When to start your real estate agent search

By now you hopefully know how to choose a real estate agent, but what about when?

The timing of your search will depend on a couple of things, including your familiarity and comfort with the home buying process, your unique needs (if any), and your other commitments and responsibilities. In general, however, it’s always going to be better to start your search sooner rather than later.

As a good rule of thumb, start your realtor search as soon as you know your timeframe for buying. Even if you don’t plan to purchase a home for another six months or a year, there’s no harm in beginning your research and narrowing down your options to a list of well-rounded agents. Most agents will not mind answering all of your questions even if you’re not ready to buy quite yet, since it could mean future business for them.

What about buying a home without an agent?

If reading all of this has made you feel like perhaps you could just go about the home purchasing process on your own, it’s worth taking a look at some of the reasons that buying without an agent isn’t such a great idea. A good agent bring a lot to the table that you won’t find anywhere else, and can be instrumental in getting you the right deal on the right house. The search for that perfect agent might take some time, but it will almost always pay off in dividends later on.

Remember: there are a lot of real estate agents out there. And each of them has their own skills, specialties, and strengths. Give yourself plenty of time to choose a real estate agent who can benefit your buying process and who you will actually enjoy working with. The rest will fall into place.