Buying your first home can feel like a combination of a rite of passage and a hazing ritual. Between sticker shock, tours of hundreds of underwhelming cracker boxes, negotiations that make carving out a viable Palestinian state seem easy and mounds of skull-vise paperwork, you need an ally. Your real-estate agent (those people who pretentiously go by the trademarked label "Realtor") will briefly become one of the most important people in your life.

Part advocate, part salesperson, part therapist—your agent can make things run smoothly or traumatize you into renting for life. So pick wisely. Ask questions. Don't be afraid to speak up when you need something. And most importantly, get a referral from someone you trust. Some things to watch for:

Experience and stability. You wouldn't pick a surgeon who just graduated from medical school. Why would you trust the most important purchase of your life with someone who doesn't even need one day of experience to get a license? Truth is, substellar agents often drop in and out of the profession or frequently change agencies. If the agent has moved around a lot in a short time period or has been on the job for only a few months, or you know more real estate terminology than he does—keep looking.

Flakiness. Warning signs include taking more than 24 hours to call you back or return emails, forgetting to forward important paperwork or not following through on deadlines.

Full-time agents. Great part-timers do exist, but full-time agents hear about opportunities first and can move on them quickly. A pro will be out looking at more houses and also might have more flexibility in adapting to your schedule. There's also something to be said about working with someone whose ability to pay her mortgage is directly dependent on getting the job done for you.

Knowledge of your desired neighborhood. I once talked with a West Hills agent who said, "Northeast Portland? Are you crazy? Your car will be stolen, and your windows will get shot out!" If your agent doesn't know the place you want to live, he won't understand the pricing of or demand for homes in the area either. Ditch 'em and find someone who does. Some agents develop specialties—they primarily work in Northeast, Southeast or wherever.

Listening. You know you have a problem when you say you want a small but well-maintained modern home for less than $300,000, and your agent takes you to ginormous, fixer-upper bungalows outside your price range. Good agents will ask about and remember as much as they can about what you absolutely can and cannot live with. A good agent will also show you both low-priced and midrange houses within your budget.

Assertiveness. You want an agent with diplomacy skills, but you also want someone who can act like a well-trained bulldog when the occasion demands. On the flip side, you want an agent who will tell you when you are being unreasonable. So what if you heard on the news that it's a "soft market"? Not for this perfect starter house in this awesome neighborhood with this many other offers already on the table.

Conflicts of interest. If your agent steers you toward only her listings, insists that you go to a certain mortgage broker or offers to act as the lending agent, get out while you can. All of this self-dealing is not only unethical but also potentially illegal.

Personal relationships. You want someone you can trust, but be wary of hiring your drinking buddy or your mom's bridge partner. You don't want a new best friend here. You want someone who will watch your back, work hard for you and honestly tell you when to back off. Save the social time for a celebration after the deal has closed. If you find yourself hesitant to ask questions or speak up, or you are afraid of your agent, you definitely need to find someone else.

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