Image: Real estate sign indicating sold house © Ryan McVay, Digital Vision, Getty Images

Related topics: homes, home buying, home prices, home selling, housing

With house prices dropping and the real estate market in disarray, real estate agents are not the most popular professionals these days. As home prices continue to slump, many homeowners are loath to pay a real estate agent on a home sale that isn't likely to be profitable for them no matter what they do. And there's a lot of contention about how much value a real estate agent even brings.

Most people have heard of the well-publicized statistical evidence that that when real estate agents sell their own homes, they tend to keep them on the market longer (by about 10 days) and get a higher sale price (by about 3%) than when they sell homes for their clients. These figures come from the wildly popular 2005 book "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The authors assume that this is because getting a few extra dollars for a seller doesn't have a sizable impact on the agent's commission.

Actually, these well-promoted statistics offer no details about why real estate agents might have such success with their own property, and the authors appear to assume the worst. However, there are some not-so-nefarious reasons why a real estate agent might be able to get a higher price for his or her own home. Here we'll take a look at the other side of the coin and what you can learn from it, whether you decide to hire an agent or sell your home yourself.

Making an impression

If strangers were to walk into your home, what would their first impression be? This is one thing that many people get wrong -- even when they use a real estate agent.

For example, in the A&E television series "Sell This House," potential buyers are videotaped as they tour houses that the homeowners are desperate to sell. As a general rule, homeowners are shocked by strangers' first impressions of their homes. A home is largely a reflection of its owner, so it's hard for an owner to accept that other people find the décor, cleanliness or even the smell of the home distasteful.

A real estate agent is often the sounding board for buyers and their complaints about the homes they visit, and she is therefore more likely to address important deficiencies in her own home.

According to the National Association of Realtors, the second-biggest reason a home won't sell is because the homeowner hasn't taken care of details like ensuring the house is clean and uncluttered, the décor is neutral and the house has been "staged" to play up its best features. The biggest reason a home won't sell is, of course, the price. We'll get to that next.

Evaluating your property

So do real estate agents really command higher prices when they sell their own homes? In 2005, the National Association of Realtors responded to this question, but because there are very few data beyond what was collected for "Freakonomics," they weren't able to deny that the book's data may well be true.