Open House Tips For First-Time Buyers

While open houses seem pretty casual, savvy buyers know that checking out a home isn't just about aesthetics or a quick view. In today's hot market, you might not get another look before making an offer. If you're seriously interested in a home, get a feel for the things you can't change: the neighborhood & ongoing home maintenance needs. You should also get critical details such as when offers are due.

If you aren’t totally sure about how the open-house process works, you aren’t alone. Sometimes homebuyers visit an open house to window shop instead of taking full advantage of the opportunity to get important details about the home. When you visit an open house, you should have several questions prepared for the seller’s agent and you should have already conducted some research, too. You want to leave this process feeling that you have enough information to make a well-informed decision.

Here’s what you need to know about the open-house process:

Open house etiquette

It may not be a fashion show, but it's important to leave a good impression on the listing agent. Bringing your business casual A-game will help you look like a serious buyer. Don’t rush - make sure you get a chance to visit each room and get a feel for the look and smell of the place. Be courteous to the agent and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

What to look for

If allowed, you should take pictures of the inside and outside of the house. On the interior of the home, you should be looking for uneven floors, water stains, signs of cracks in the ceilings or walls, and mold. On the exterior, you’ll want to see if there’s any damage to outer walls, or if the roof has any tiles missing. If you can easily spot damage to the home, then it might not be worth your time. it's important to consider that there may be repairs you'll need to factor into your budget if you decide to make an offer on the home.

How to take the pulse of the competition

Are other prospective homebuyers at the open house? How serious do they seem about the process? Are they asking questions? Do they have a checklist? Be on the lookout when you enter the home. These are potential homebuyers who might also make an offer on the property.

Make sure you are memorable

You want to try and ensure that the agent remembers you. Building a good relationship with the agent can be key if you decide to make an offer on the home. Tell a short story about yourself, or ask the agent about their family or how they got started in the real estate business. Make a genuine effort to get to know them in the short period of time you spend at the home. Agents are people too, and people remember those who make an effort.

Know which questions to ask

By now, you know that an open house isn’t just a casual gathering of interested buyers, sellers and real estate agents. It is a major opportunity for you to feel out the home while also getting critical information.

You are probably still wondering what to ask at an open house. You should have several questions prepared, as the open house might be the only chance you get to ask them. If the home is a hot commodity, then other potential buyers might be looking to put in an offer soon. You want to get as much information as possible during the open house so that you can make an informed decision on whether or not you want to go forward with an offer of your own.

Here is a helpful checklist of questions to get answered on your open house tour:

1. How many offers have been made?

You should always ask the real estate agent if any offers have already been made. If there are multiple offers on the home, it could indicate that the property might sell quickly. If there aren’t any offers yet, then the opposite might be true. Real estate agents hope that multiple offers will push up the sales price of the home. Keep your budget in mind -- even if you love the home, you don’t want to get into a bidding war with other prospective buyers if the result is an unaffordable price.

2. Why are the sellers moving?

The sellers could be moving because one of the owners got a new job across the country. Or they could be moving because the home’s maintenance is unaffordable and the repairs are getting more burdensome. Always make sure to ask the real estate agent why the sellers are moving. If they give a strange or off-putting reason, take note. The last thing you want to do is move into a house the owners sold because of bad neighbors, rising crime or failing schools.

3. How long has the property been on the market? Why?

Learning how long a property has been on the market will allow you to make a knowledgeable offer. Make sure to ask the agent, but also verify their claim with a listing service. It could have been on the market for a while because a previous buyer’s financing didn’t come through. Or maybe the property just went on the market this month and there are plenty of suitors. The context will provide you with useful information that gives you a better idea of how fast you’ll need to take action and how competitive the offer process might be.

4. When was the house built? Has it ever gotten any updates?

You want to make sure that you know when the home was built and if there have been any updates or renovations. Check on key features of the home, such as the roof, piping or electrical wiring. If you are purchasing an older home and there have been no recent updates of these features, you should be wary -- you might have to make those repairs at significant cost in the near future.

5. What are the costs of utilities?

Too often, utilities are an afterthought in the home-buying process. But this is a property you are thinking about living in, and that means you’ll need lights, running water, heat, air conditioning and working sewer pipes. Ask the agent if he or she knows a ballpark of what utilities cost. You don’t want to get further into the process just to find out that the utilities on the property will have a significantly adverse effect on your budget.

6. How eager is the seller to sell the property? Is it an urgent sale or can it happen at any time?

Just as it is important to know why the seller is moving, it is also important to know how eager they are to sell and what their timeline looks like. If the seller needs to offload the house in a hurry, then perhaps they might be willing to consider a lower offer. But if the seller isn’t motivated, then the process might not move very quickly.

7. What are the neighbors like? Have there ever been any issues?

You aren’t just buying a property. You are also going to be spending the majority of your time in a new neighborhood. Even if you like the property, do you really want to live in a neighborhood you don’t feel comfortable in? Ask the real estate agent about the neighbors and make sure there haven’t been any issues. You’ll also want to check online and look at the local shops and eateries. Visit a few and see if they match your lifestyle and meet your needs.

8. What/where are the schools? How are they rated?

Schools are a huge issue for homebuyers. You can check how the local school district is rated online, but nothing beats asking people in person. How do they feel the local schools are serving the students? Even if kids aren't in your near future, the quality of your school district will eventually impact your home's resell value.

9. What other homes should you check out in the neighborhood? Why?

Real estate agents aren’t just selling one home. There are likely other sellers in the area that they represent as well. If you aren’t totally sold on the home you are visiting during the open house, ask the agent if there are any other homes nearby that you should check out. You’d be surprised how often buyers find helpful information this way.

If you are looking to schedule or book a private home tour, Open Listings can help. Our service allows homebuyers to book a tour right from the comfort of their own home. Easily schedule a tour online from your laptop, smartphone, or tablet--you don’t even need to make a call. Now that you’ve read this post, you know everything you need to ask the real estate agent next time you visit an open house!

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