Troubled Blue Cross plans; household-help advice; allies for home buyers; investing in baseball cards HOUSE HUNTING? SAVE BY HIRING YOUR OWN BROKER
By Carla A. Fried

(MONEY Magazine) – If you ever doubted the value of real estate agents who work solely for home buyers (as opposed to traditional agents who report to sellers), consider this: A recent study by U.S. Sprint found that 232 relocating Sprint employees who hired buyer's brokers paid an average of 91% of a home's list price. People who use traditional agents typically pay about 96%. On a house originally priced at $150,000, that's a difference of $7,500. Still, buyer's brokers have been a sometimes scorned minority -- until now. In January, after years of treating the brokers as unwelcome cousins, the 750,000-member National Association of Realtors formally opened its doors to the roughly 4% of agents who represent buyers. Housing analysts figure the move will lead more real estate agents to work wholly or partly as buyer's brokers. * To find one, check your Board of Realtors or call the Buyer's Broker Registry at 800-729-5147 for names of 250 members in 36 states. Make sure the broker can tap the local multiple listing service in the market you are exploring and that he or she is prepared to pursue other leads too, such as homes sold directly by owners or through corporate relocation offices. In addition: -- Discuss compensation before signing the broker's contract. The best deal is to negotiate a flat fee of 2% to 3% of your target purchase price. Some buyer's brokers, however, charge 3% commissions based on sales prices. If yours does, ask for proof that he or she has helped negotiate lower prices for previous clients. If you plan to do most of the house hunting on your own and need a buyer's agent only to help negotiate and close the deal, ask about paying an hourly fee rather than a commission. Hourly rates usually range from $65 to $125 with a cap of 2% to 3% of the purchase price. -- Find out how the broker will dig out price information for you. A buyer's broker should be your own professional Columbo, willing to pore through public records to find out what price the seller paid for the house and when. ''That's key information for you to use in bidding, and a traditional agent is legally forbidden from giving it to you,'' says Barry Miller, the founder of the Denver-based Buyers Resource chain of buyer's brokers in 15 states around the country. -- Be sure the broker spells out the company's conflict-of-interest policy. ''You want a written assurance that the agent will not accept any sort of financial incentive from the seller's agent, even if that agent is part of their own company,'' says Miller.