What level of service would you expect from someone you paid $5,100? For that kind of money, you'd probably demand personal attention, prompt responses to inquiries, expert insight, and a daily foot massage.

Then that's what you should expect from a real estate agent since -- based on the median home sale price of approximately $170,00 and the standard commission of 3% -- she stands to make several grand once the transaction is complete. (You probably won't get a foot massage, but it might not hurt to ask.)

So, what are the characteristics of an agent who's earning her keep? An excellent agent:

  • Stays on top of deadlines with home repairs, inspections, appraisals, and paperwork.

  • Helps prepare your home for sale. She provides honest and helpful insight about what will be a turn-off to potential buyers and offers to help spruce up the place (known as "staging" in the business -- a good agent will even have props such as lamps, pictures, and plants).

  • Returns calls and emails quickly and answers questions completely.

  • Will consider negotiating the commission, especially if she is handling the sale of one home and the purchase of another.

  • Evaluates all aspects of a house you're interest in, including the size of water heater, the type of heating source, the ages of the appliances, and suspicious stains.

  • Continues working for you even after the deal is done. She makes sure you get your checks from escrow, gets you copies of all important documents, and answers questions after she's banked her commission.

  • Is a vigorous but fair advocate. A real estate agent (or buyer broker, or selling broker) is your guide and counsel during what can be a lengthy, complicated ordeal. She defends your interests without offending the other party.

If your agent fits this description, congratulations. If not, strongly consider hiring someone else. Why pay thousands of dollars for anything but the best?

If you'd like to learn more about the home-buying or selling process, including how to get the best mortgage, visit the Fool's Home Center. It's better than a foot massage.