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Published: February 27, 2018
Getting smart -- about what to do, ask, and avoid -- can move you ahead of the crowd.
Ah, the open house -- a chance to wander through other people's homes and imagine yourself knocking out walls and gut rehabbing their kitchens. This is what dreams are made of (or at least episodes of HGTV).
In all seriousness, going to open houses (and scheduled private showings) is one of the most exciting parts of the home-buying experience. Beyond the voyeuristic thrill, visiting houses allows you to assess things that you just can't see online.
Anyone who has taken a super-posed selfie knows that a picture doesn't always tell the whole truth. Professional listing photos can make small rooms look spacious, make dim rooms bright, and mask other flaws of a home -- but you don't know any of that until you actually see the house yourself.
You can tour houses at any point, but it can be helpful to first discuss your needs and wants with your partner (if you have one), do some online research, and talk with your agent and your lender. That way, you -- and your agent -- can take a targeted approach, which saves you time and can give you an edge over your buying competition.
So, before you start viewing, follow these tips to get prepared.
Make It Your Job to Know Which Houses Are "Open"
There are four ways to know when a house is available for viewing:
•Ask your agent. He or she will have details on specific properties and can keep you informed of open houses that fit your criteria.
•Use listing websites. A number of property sites let you search active listings for upcoming open houses. On realtor.com?, for instance, when searching for properties, scroll over the "Buy" tab and click the "Open Houses" link to see upcoming ones in your area.
•Scroll social media. On Instagram, for example, you can search the hashtag #openhouse, or similar tags for your city (#openhousedallas, for example), to discover open houses. Many real estate agents and brokerages also post open house announcements on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; find ones from your area and start following.
•Drive around. Cruise through the neighborhoods you're interested in -- it's a good way to get a sense of the area amenities -- and look for open house signs.
And while you're searching, be sure to jot down the location, time, and date for any open house that strikes your fancy. It will make it that much easier to plan times and routes for hitting as many homes as possible.
Get There Early (and Say Hi to the Neighbors)
If you're seriously interested in a home, show up to the open house early. That way you'll beat the rush, and the agent showing the house (AKA the host) will have time to focus on you and your questions.
And don't be shy! Many home buyers hop from one open house to the next without talking to the listing agent. But chatting up the host can help you learn information that you wouldn't get by only touring the premises.
If a house seems like a match, take a walk around the neighborhood. Strike up conversations with the neighbors to get an insider's perspective on what life in that community is really like -- families, singles, what the vibe on the block is like, and whether the homeowner's or condo association (if there is one) is easy to work with.
Ask Lots of Questions, But Avoid TMI
To make the most of your open house visits, have a list of questions in mind for the host -- and take notes while you're there, so you can keep track of what you learned.
At the same time, remember this: Your interaction with the host could be the beginning of negotiations with them. If you end up making an offer, you'll use the information you've gathered to inform your bid. (They'll also remember that you were an engaged yet courteous person, which can't hurt your cause.)
Equally important: Oversharing could hurt your negotiating power.
Be careful about what information you share with the agent hosting the event. This person works for the seller -- not you. The host can and will use stats they've gleaned about you to counter, reject, or accept an offer.
Keeping that in mind, here are eight questions you can ask a host to help determine whether a house is a good fit for you:
Have you received any offers? If there are already bids on the table, you'll have to move quickly if you want to make an offer. Keep in mind: Listing agents can't disclose the amount of any other offers, though -- only whether they exist. When does the seller want to move? Find out the seller's timeline. If the seller is in a hurry (say, for a new job), they may be willing to accept an offer that's below list price. When is the seller looking to close? Price isn't the only factor for many home sellers. One way to strengthen your offer is to propose a settlement date that's ideal for them. For example, a 30- to 45-day closing is standard in many markets, but the seller may want more time if they haven't purchased their next home yet. Is the seller flexible on price? Most listing agents won't tip their hand when you ask this question, but there's always a chance the agent says "yes." And, in some instances, the seller has authorized their agent to tell interested buyers that the price is negotiable. In any case, you might as well ask. (It's kind of like googling for a coupon code when you buy something online.) How many days has the home been on the market? You can find this information on the internet, but the seller's agent can give you context, especially if the house has been sitting on the market for a while. Maybe the home was under contract but the buyer's financing fell through, or the seller overshot the listing price and had to make a price reduction? Knowing the backstory can only help you. Has the price changed? You can see if there's been a price reduction online, but talking to the listing agent is the only way to find out why the seller dropped the price. Are there any issues? Have there been any renovations or recent repairs made to the home? Some upgrades, like new kitchen appliances, are easy to spot, but some are harder to identify. Specifically ask about the roof, appliances, and HVAC system because they can be expensive to repair or replace. BTW, repairs like a leaky faucet, aren't things that need to be disclosed. What are the average utility costs? Many buyers don't factor utility bills into their monthly housing expenses, and these costs can add up -- particularly in drafty older homes. Ask the listing agent what a typical monthly utility bill is during the summer and during the winter, since heating and cooling costs can fluctuate seasonally. Be prepared for higher utility bills if you're moving from an apartment to a single-family home.
Now that you've got your answers, there's one last thing to do: Thank the host before you go. You never know -- you could be seeing them again at the negotiating table soon.