Besides being fun, open houses are research opportunities. When you’ve “tried on” lots of homes before you start seriously shopping, you can be more confident that you’ve found the best fit at a fair price when the time comes.
What an open house is not, is a buying opportunity. There are exceptions. In a hot market, an open house might be the first and only chance you’ll get to see a property. But according to veteran Realtor Dawn Lane, open houses rarely sell homes and aren’t even really meant to.
“Agents only do open houses to catch new buyers who are unrepresented,” she says. “You have to sign in, so they get a list of potential homebuyers.”
If you’re actually ready to buy, it’s best to get a good agent on board and get preapproved for a loan before shopping. Your agent will make sure you see everything that meets your budget, your criteria, and any restrictions on your loan. And with preapproval, you know how much you can spend. Sellers take you more seriously too.
But … let’s say you do find yourself getting serious at an open house. Don’t work with the listing agent, who after all represents the seller. You’re under no obligation, says Lane. “Be firm that you’re going to have your own representation.”
Without further ado, here are nine ways to make the most of open-house hunting. Redfin and Realtor.com are two sites that carry open-house listings.
1. Embrace the reality check.
Visiting open houses can bring you down to earth on what your dream home will actually cost, and can help you see the tradeoffs you might have to make. As long as you’re willing to see them. Maybe you can live in your favorite part of the city … if you settle for a smaller place or a fixer-upper.
2. Learn to really look.
When buying a home, it’s all too easy to focus on what you love and go blind to downsides and potential issues. Window shopping is your chance to cultivate a critical eye that will serve you well in the future. Start training yourself now to notice the things you love and the things you don’t.
3. Learn to look beyond.
If you can practice seeing past knickknacks and faux-brick vinyl floor covering, you might just snag a jewel in the rough that other homebuyers take a pass on.
4. Refine your preferences.
What are your favorite layouts and design ideas? Maybe you realize that you don’t actually like the feel of the gigantic “great room” you thought you wanted, but an open kitchen is something you love.
5. Get to know your partner.
If you’re buying for two, open houses are a great way to explore where you agree and disagree on needs and wants. Make a date of it, but hold your comments until you’re back in the car.
6. Gauge the rental market.
Is the home you’re visiting rented? Ask at what price. It’s nice to know whether you could cover the mortgage by renting it out, if for example you needed to move and didn’t want to sell.
7. Get a handle on HOA fees.
If it’s a condo, find out what the monthly HOA (homeowners association) fees are. These fees will be an important part of your affordability equation, and you can compare costs later if you start tracking them now. And while you’re there, check out the surroundings and any shared facilities.
8. Pick the agent’s brain.
You don’t have to be serious to do this. Ask the listing agent about the house and the area real estate in general. If it’s a slow day, the agent might be grateful for the conversation.
9. Shop for an agent.
While you’re under no obligation to work with any listing agent you meet at an open house, you might meet a few you actually like. Take their info, and you can interview them later when you do get serious.
Bonus tip: If you do take a serious interest in a house despite your best “just looking” intentions, remember that you have no obligation to – and really should not – work with the listing agent. That would put you in a hard dual agency situation. “Be firm that you’re going to have your own representation,” Lane says.
Dawn Lane is an independent Las Vegas–based broker and Realtor who’s been in the business for more than 20 years. An advocate for affordable housing, she’s also founder of the nonprofit HOPE Home Foundation, sits on the NeighborWorks America advisory board, and is a national authority on employer-assisted housing programs.
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