When a home goes on the market, an open house is often considered an important first step to debut the property once updates have been made, clutter is cleared and staging furniture is selected to appeal to the widest possible audience.
An open house can be an equally crucial part of the homebuying process for buyers – not just to view and potentially find a next home, but to become acquainted with homes on the market, scope out competing buyers and strategize for putting in an offer.
But an open house is also where a lot of buyers can make mistakes, says Dana Bull, a real estate agent for Harborside Sotheby's International Realty in Boston. She says popular house-hunting TV shows make many homebuyers think it's typical to voice opinions during an open house.
"They'll say, 'Not enough closet space,' or even, 'The kids are going to love it.' It's not in your best interest to say much of anything," Bull says.
Regardless of your thoughts on the home, it's best to remain mum until you're out of earshot of the listing agent and possibly competing buyers, as that gives you the strongest possible negotiating position.
"Buyers might be quick in a colloquial or kind of chatty way to disclose information about their own financials, about their own timeline, what they may or may not be looking for and, even further, maybe voicing their interest in a whole new way that may make it difficult to negotiate strongly for them down the line," says Ian Katz, principal real estate broker for the Ian K. Katz Group, based in New York City and Westchester, New York.
Bull and Katz both prefer to attend open houses with their clients whenever possible, not only to help keep negotiation strategies in mind, but also to treat the open house as a learning opportunity for buyers, especially if they're not sure what to expect from the market.
Bull often works with millennials and first-time homebuyers, and she says open houses are a good tool during the early stages of house hunting to set expectations for what various price points can afford in the area. "For each house we go to it's about creating a case study about value," Bull says.
Here are eight things you can do to maximize your next open house visit.
Check out the area. If you have no idea what type of home you want or are unfamiliar with a neighborhood, open houses are the perfect opportunity to see a variety of architectural styles and properties in different parts of a metro area without putting in too much effort or commitment.
"You might be looking for one thing, and you might find something completely different," says Juliette Hohnen, director of luxury sales for Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Beverly Hills, California.
Put on your poker face. When speaking with the home's listing agent, feel free to ask and answer general questions, but don't share key details such as a tight timeline, high-price mortgage approval or how much you love the home, to avoid compromising your negotiating power.
Feel free to tell the agent you're just browsing. Open houses are publicly marketed online and on roadside signs, so people who aren't seriously looking for a home are expected to stop in.
"I don't see any harm in just going. It can be a no-pressure situation, especially if you make it clear to the listing agent that you're really just looking and in the early stages [of house hunting]," Katz says.
The listing agent will likely offer you his or her services as a buyer agent, but be sure to thoroughly vet any agent as a good fit before signing a contract for representation.
Bring your agent, when possible. If you're already represented by an agent, try to visit open houses together as you would a private showing. This allows you to remain on the same page, and in many cases, see a lot of homes in one or two days by open house hopping over a weekend.
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Have your agent do the serious talking. While you're keeping a straight face, let the pros talk shop. Your agent will be better able to get details about the seller's expectations without revealing too much about your situation, making it possible to negotiate a stronger deal for you should you decide to make an offer.
Focus on the home's big-ticket features. As with any showing, it's easy to get distracted by cosmetic updates and flashy features, but Bull says she presses her clients to focus on the parts of the home that are far pricier to maintain. If the roof is dated and looks to be leaking, a recently updated kitchen or stunning bathroom won't cut it.
"I really try and educate my buyers on looking behind the surface and what's really going on with the property," she says.
Try for a private showing as well. If you can, schedule a private showing outside of the open house hours. This will give you the chance to take your time and form an opinion without other competing buyers serving as a distraction.
Especially if you expect the home to have multiple offers its first weekend on the market, try to see the home privately ahead of time. Or, if that's not possible, attend the open house and schedule a private showing afterward to finalize your opinion.
"Even in busy cases, I like to go back with my clients for a private showing, even if it's later that day or the next day," Katz says.
Time your offer strategically. When you have a chance to tour the home ahead of an open house, Bull recommends putting an offer in ahead of time, which gives you leverage as the first bidder.
"If they say no, we at least kind of feel out where the sellers want to be, and then we get another chance to try," Bull says.
The last thing you want to do is wait too long to put in an offer – so if the first time you see a property you want is at the open house and other buyers appear ready to make an offer, make a move before it's too late.
"Where buyers lose out is that they don't realize time is of the essence in real estate," Hohnen says.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.