If you’re like a lot of folks these days, you probably started your house-hunting mission by driving around and scoping out neighborhoods, looking at houses with “For Sale” signs in the yard and checking out what’s available online.

It’s hard to get a real feel for a home, however, without actually stepping inside – and that’s where an open house can be vital. In a hot market, you need to go in with a plan and make every visit count.

Here are some tips that can help you make the most of an open house:

Don’t Let the Casual Atmosphere Fool You

Open houses are, traditionally, casual events designed to drum up interest in a property. In less intense markets, it was not unusual for “window shoppers” (and a few curious neighbors) to wander through an open house just to take a peek. If a potential buyer really liked a place, they’d schedule a second, private showing through their realtor.

With today’s housing market being so tight, it’s wisest to assume that the open house may be the only chance you get to see the home because competing bids may come rolling in by the time the event is over. Have your mortgage pre-approval handy, your real estate professional on speed dial and be ready to make an offer right away.

Understand the Expected Etiquette of an Open House

You don’t need to dress up to attend an open house, but you do want to make a good impression. Comfortable shoes are a must (since you will probably be walking quite a bit), but pair them with “business casual” attire. That just shows respect for the fact that you’re visiting someone else’s home and tends to make you look like a serious buyer.

In addition:

  • Don’t arrive early or late. The open house hours are published, and arriving even a few minutes before or after could put the homeowner and their listing agent in an awkward position.
  • Look for any signs or notes on the door that inform you about house rules – and respect them. If the seller asks you to leave your shoes at the door or cover your shoes with little disposable booties they provide to protect their carpets, do it.
  • Sign in and provide your contact information if the listing agent requests it. If you’re asked a few other basic questions, respond politely. The impression you make on the listing agent can help you stand out from the crowd if you do decide to make an offer. Signing in is also used as a form of security for the homeowner. In case something happens, they want/have the right to know who is coming into their home.
  • Have your realtor’s business card with you to give to the listing agent. It will stop them from pestering you, show that you are really serious about the home, and they will reach out to your agent for more information.
  • Leave your children with a sitter, if at all possible. Keeping track of your kids (and keeping them from damaging anything) won’t leave you with a lot of spare energy to really inspect the house. If you must bring your children with you, keep them at your sides during the tour and make it clear that they can’t touch anything without permission.
  • Leave your pets at home. No matter how small or housebroken your dog may be, you simply do not want to take an animal into someone else’s home without their consent.
  • Have your cell phone ready to take photos.

Feel free to take a snack or a drink if they’re provided at the open house (and they usually are), but don’t help yourself to anything in the homeowner’s fridge or touch any of their decorative items or personal possessions.

Keep in mind that sellers sometimes discretely wander through their own open houses to keep an eye on things, and you don’t want to have your bid rejected because you committed a faux pas right in front of them.

Be Prepared to Do Some Critical Thinking

by cosmetic changes. Stay focused on the important issues, like whether the house seems to be in overall good condition and is right for your needs.

For example, if you work from home or have hobbies that take up a lot of room, make sure that you can really see yourself living, working and playing in the spaces the home has to offer.

Most open houses will provide a listing sheet that has a few photos of the home and some of the most basic information, including the number of bedrooms, baths, the local school districts and so on – so grab one and read through it to see how many of your questions it answers.

Then, approach the listing agent and quickly run through any additional questions you may have. (While you don’t want to monopolize the listing agent’s time, good questions also tell the listing agent that you’re interested, and that’s never a bad thing – just be brief.)

What sort of questions are important to ask? Consider these:

  • Do the appliances stay, and are they in good condition?
  • Is there any sign of water damage on the ceilings or walls?
  • What updates have been made to the home in terms of the electric, the roof, the HVAC unit and other high-ticket items?
  • Are the windows new or old?
  • Is the fireplace functional and the chimney in good repair?
  • What outbuildings are included in the property?
  • Is there a fence? Can you build one? What are the local zoning restrictions on anything like that, if you want to add to the structure?
  • Has the electricity been upgraded to accommodate modern electronics?
  • How much do the property taxes run?
  • How much do the utilities cost, on average?
  • Is there an HOA involved, and what sort of restrictions do they impose?

Finally, keep your wits about you and look for “red flags” that indicate a homeowner is trying to hide a problem. Overpowering scents could be masking the smell of animal urine sunk into the floors or mildew, and a random rug in a strange spot could be hiding water damage on hardwood floors.

With the market conditions, the more prepared you are to treat an open house like it’s a private walk-through, the better. Buying a home today has some unique challenges, but your real estate professional can definitely help you through it.

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