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Open houses: What’s their role in the home-buying process?

Peter Warden
The Mortgage Reports contributor

In this article:

On any weekend, an online search for “open houses near me” turns up a long list. And it can be fun looking at homes for sale. But are open houses the best way to find a new home?

  1. Open houses provide a small snapshot of what’s available at that moment in that neighborhood
  2. Don’t pick your agent on impulse at an open house or make an offer without prior research
  3. If you’re a serious buyer, get pre-approved for your mortgage before attending open houses
Verify your new rate (Nov 20th, 2018)

How open houses work

“Open houses” are events in which you can view a property for sale without an appointment. They may be ongoing at new home developments, with model homes to check out. Or they may be listings by individual home sellers who want to give the general a public a peek at the inside of the house and hoping that someone will fall in love with it.

Normally, you see open houses advertised in your local paper or on real estate Web pages. Or you can just drive through your preferred neighborhoods and look for signs on the weekend.

Related: “New school” house hunting: Buy a house online

You may be asked to remove your shoes when you enter, and the agent may also ask you to sign in and even provide some form of ID.

You can walk through the house and view its insides. Take pictures if you really want to remember it when comparing it to others, and take notes if you’re seriously looking.

You’ll probably meet the listing agent or an assistant, and perhaps a mortgage lender and almost certainly some neighbors. Neighbors often like to check out nearby houses and see their listing prices.

Open houses are extremely preliminary steps in the buying process. In most cases, the visitors are making their first foray into the process, seeing what’s “out there” and what it will cost.

There is no obligation to do anything after viewing an open house.

Your mission

If you’ve ever fantasized about being a spy, an open house is a chance to prove test your skills. Your mission is to discover as much as you can while giving away as little as possible about yourself.

That’s a good principle for your visits to open houses. Be like a secret agent:

  • Get intel from the real estate agent. Learn all you can about the home, the neighborhood, the local housing market and any gossip she’s heard about other properties in your target area, including imminent price reductions and new listings
  • Talk to other open house visitors. Many of them are probably curious neighbors as well as serious buyers. And those neighbors can tell you what it’s really like to live in the street
  • Eavesdrop — You may pick up the best intelligence from other people’s conversations. Spend plenty of time in silence, pretending to be fascinated by some detail in a room, while others gossip about the home’s and its owners’ histories
  • Be guarded — Feel free to sign in, engage with others and chat. But don’t overshare. In particular, you don’t want to give away how desperate you are to find a home or how much you absolutely adore the place you’re viewing

Related: Do you need a real estate agent to buy a home?

In short, think of an open house as an information-gathering experience. Don’t get attached to that particular home.

Not just “open houses near me”

Do you watch HGTV’s show, “The Property Brothers?” Drew, the real estate agent twin, finds a new place for each episode’s featured homeowners. And frequently, people end up buying somewhere outside the area they’d specified.

Related: Is it safe? How to check out your neighborhood before buying a home

Don’t assume the criteria you’ve set for your next home are carved in stone. If you explore areas outside your ideal one, you may find you can get a whole lot more home for your money. And you might well end up settling for a longer commute or switching your kids’ schools to get your dream place.

So don’t only go to “open houses near me.” Explore further afield. If there’s nothing you like, you’ll have lost nothing more than an hour or two.

Open house etiquette

There’s no advantage to being rude when you visit an open house. The other visitors you encounter there may end up your neighbors. And local real estate markets typically have a small cast of characters: you may end up buying a property from the agent who’s hosting that day. Why alienate him or her?

You don’t have to launch a charm offensive. Just follow some basic rules of etiquette:

When you arrive

Don’t feel you have to ring the doorbell or knock when you arrive, unless there is a sign saying so. Just enter.

If the host isn’t within sight, call out a hello. You can start to look around while waiting for someone to appear.

Some agents may invite you to look around yourself, while others will prefer to give you the tour. Either way, feel free to ask as many questions as you like.

Dress appropriately

Even if you’re viewing high-end estates in Beverly Hills or penthouses in Manhattan, you don’t have to dress up. To start with, 5-inch stilettos can damage floors, so you’d probably have to remove them. And walkable comfort is the sensible priority when visiting all open houses.

Having said that, you don’t want to look as if you’ve been sleeping in your car and haven’t yet gotten around to a shower. You’re a guest in someone else’s home so there are minimum standards you’ll likely want to meet.

Related: For Sale By Owner: How to deal with FSBOs 

Of course, real estate agents know that some eccentric millionaires like to dress down. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously wears the same type of grey T-shirt virtually every day. But they’re more likely to take you seriously if you dress and groom yourself like the sort of person they expect to buy the home.

Sign in

Most open houses have a visitors’ book. And the agent will likely invite you to sign in.

It’s okay to get on the agent’s good side, so no harm in doing so.

It’s perfectly permissible not to leave a phone number. Or, if you wish, you can mark your sign-in, “Do not contact.”

Don’t forget to ask for a description sheet for the home, which should contain the most salient information. Use it to add your own notes.

Don’t make assumptions

Your host will usually be the listing agent. The listing agent represents the seller. But that’s not always the case.

Sometimes, your host may be the homeowner or a neighbor or friend. So ask the person who greets you what his or her role is. You’ll probably want to be more diplomatic in your critique of the decor if you know you’re addressing the owner.

Related: Buying sight unseen: making on offer without seeing the house first

It may be that the host is someone junior in the listing agent’s office. You can’t expect him or her to be able to answer all your questions authoritatively. But you can expect to have your questions written down and later to receive a call or email answering them all.

You don’t have to be a buyer

Don’t be embarrassed if you’re just a curious neighbor rather than a serious buyer. The clue’s in the name: Open houses are supposed to be open.

A sensible agent will welcome neighbors and others who are curious. They know word-of-mouth marketing is often the most cost-effective form of selling. However, if you’re really serious, don’t go in without a mortgage pre-approval or at least a pre-qualification letter. If you want them to talk you more seriously than they do the non-serious visitors.

Photos and video

Chances are, there will be few objections to your using your smartphone to record photos or video. But ask first. After all, you’re in someone else’s home.

And be sensitive. It’s one thing to take a general shot of the family room. It’s quite another to expose personal clutter in a drawer or closet.

Inspection vs. intrusion

That thought leads onto another. Feel free to open built-in closets and kitchen cabinets and drawers. They’re of legitimate interest to someone thinking of buying the home.

But your license to investigate doesn’t extend to the seller’s private life. You don’t get to explore the contents of medicine cabinets, storage boxes, piles of papers or clothing drawers.

Similarly, it’s rarely wise to make an offer on impulse. If you’ve fallen in love with the place, by all means, signal your interest in moderate terms. But there’s a lot to do before you’re ready to make a binding offer.

Related: 5 steps to take before making an offer

Dealing with pushy agents

Don’t let a pushy agent put you off. It’s his or her job to sell.

But some agents see open houses as primarily an opportunity to expand their client bases. Selling the home is a secondary consideration.

If you already have a buyer’s agent who’s acting for you, tell the listing agents. That should stop them in their tracks. Hand over your agent’s business card to close the conversation.

Resist pressure to hire the agent

If you haven’t yet appointed a buyer’s agent, don’t let this agent pressure you. Be calm, polite and firm. Pushy people may hate taking no for an answer, but they’re used to it.

Of course, if you’re bowled over by his charm, professionalism and local knowledge, you can add him to your list of potential buyer’s agents. But don’t feel you need to sign anything during your visit.

Verify your new rate (Nov 20th, 2018)