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What Is an Open House? We Dig Into the History And Answer Your Questions About This Real Estate Tradition

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Buying a house comes with so much new vocabulary you have to learn — amortization, easement, lien, note rate, and dozens more new terms. One you’ve probably heard hundreds of times is “open house” — and maybe you have a vague idea of what it means, but you’ve never had a good opportunity to dig into what an open house really is, where they came from, and what the rules are for finding and attending one.

Whether you’re an open-house aficionado who needs a refresher, or a brand-new buyer who’s never been to one before and is curious, keep reading. We’ll cover all the questions you have about open houses with clear, detailed information, so you can feel confident looking for and attending your next one. You may even know more about them than the listing agent running it!

The entryway of what might be an open house.
Source: (Point3D Commercial Imaging Ltd. / Unsplash)

What is an open house?

This is a term for when a seller opens the doors of their home for a specific window of time to prospective buyers. The house is open for you to wander through and imagine living there.

It’s your opportunity to confirm the photos of the property and its dimensions are accurate, to understand the layout, and to even ask questions about that crack in the ceiling you didn’t see in the pictures.

Where did the open house concept come from?

The idea of opening up our houses to strangers interested in buying them is a relatively new one, only about a century old. Of course, open houses didn’t start out as they are, and they took a few decades to evolve into the open houses we know and love.

The first open houses

The concept of an open house was introduced in the 1910s, and the first open houses were all homes that were newly built. This ability to walk around a newly constructed home gave potential homebuyers the ability to explore new architectural styles, like innovative kitchen layouts, and modern (at the time) technologies, like electrical lighting.

In the 1910s, indoor electricity was a big new thing that home builders were embracing and that homeowners were intrigued by, so showing off the benefits of an electrically wired home helped increase sold homes.

These houses were open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until the house was sold. And because the listing broker had to stay at the open house all day until it was sold, they were only able to sell one house at a time.

The modern open house

As time passed, open houses evolved with the real estate industry. In the 1920s, open houses started being fully “staged” (furnished as if someone already lived there.) This made it easier for potential buyers to imagine living in the home themselves.

In the 1930s and 1940s, real estate agencies came into existence, consolidating multiple agents under one company, enabling one agency to show and sell multiple properties at the same time. These agents began to view open houses as a marketing tool to connect with buyers who may be a fit for other listings the agency had, even if the open house property was not a fit or was sold to another client.

In the 1940s and 1950s, as soldiers returned home after WWII, they focused on starting families, and the real estate market skyrocketed. Thanks to newspaper and radio ads, houses sold more quickly and open houses became much shorter commitments for the agents.

In the 1950s, blue laws were in effect, prohibiting the completion of a business transaction on a Sunday, making it the perfect day to hold open houses. This left Monday through Saturday to complete the transaction, and if it stalled for some reason, another open house could always be held the following Sunday.

Open houses haven’t changed much since the 1950s because they haven’t really needed to. They work just as they are to connect buyers and agents.

Even the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t significantly altered the way open houses work — it has just introduced some crowd control rules and increased the number of virtual open houses. The structure and purpose of open houses remains the same and likely will for a long time.

When are open houses scheduled?

Most open houses are scheduled on weekends, during the day, as that’s when most people have free time. You might find some open houses on weekdays, perhaps in the evening, but you should expect the majority of open houses to be held on the weekends and should therefore plan to dedicate a good part of your weekends to attending open houses while house-hunting, especially your Sundays.

Open houses are usually “open” for a span of several hours so that buyers can plan to visit more than one in a day (ideally, several!).

A person driving to find an open house.
Source: (Samuel Foster / Unsplash)

How do you find open houses?

Whether you’re just exploring, starting your search without a broker, or you want to extend your home search to beyond what your buyer’s agent is sharing with you, you have some options.

The MLS

Open houses are usually advertised in lots of places beyond the multiple listing service (MLS), but the MLS is the best place to start your search for open houses near you that meet your dream home criteria.

Social media

Once you’ve checked out the MLS, it’s time to get on social media. Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn are all popular with listing agents who are advertising their properties. All three platforms allow them to post multiple photos of each listing as well as pay to advertise priority listings.

To find open houses near you, search for #openhouse and your neighborhood or city. Be sure to filter by date to avoid wasting time on old listings! You can also follow agents near you on social media to be alerted when they share new properties.

Drive around and look for ads!

It’s old school, but agents and homeowners will still put up signs on properties advertising upcoming open houses. You may even find some open houses that aren’t listed online, and you’ll get to explore the neighborhood, which can be especially useful if you don’t know it that well.

Can anyone attend an open house?

There aren’t restrictions on who can attend, though the purpose is to help people trying to buy a house find the right one for them – so if you’re going just to look, be respectful!

Don’t pester the agent with a ton of questions if you’re not really interested in the house. Don’t impede serious buyers’ access to the open house, especially if there are limits to the number of attendees who can be inside at one time. Don’t just show up for the snacks!

Open houses are a great way to begin your buying journey by seeing what you like and don’t like in a house, but if you’re not serious about buying right now, be considerate of those who are and of the agent who is trying to do their job.

How do open houses work?

The seller won’t be there, but the listing agent will probably be present, and they should be able to answer some of your questions about the house. If they don’t have the information on the spot, they’ll likely follow up with answers if you seem like a serious buyer.

You’ll probably be expected to sign in and leave some contact information for the listing agent. This is both so they can follow up with you, and so they can give the seller feedback on how their open house did in terms of number of attendees and other details.

If the idea of leaving your information bothers you, remind yourself: You are walking through someone’s private and intimate space! Wouldn’t you want to know who’s walking through yours?

While you should be on your best behavior at an open house— measuring spaces is fine, snooping in medicine cabinets is not — don’t feel rushed or hesitant to explore the living areas.

You can take your time walking through the house and ask the listing agent questions. There may be information provided that should cover basic information, like when the house was built, why the current owners are selling, what the schools in the area are like, and if there have been any improvements and renovations. If the listing agent doesn’t have the information handy that you’re seeking, ask!

Remember to be considerate of both the listing agent’s time and the other attendees. It isn’t a private showing, so please don’t treat it like one.

A person researching what is an open house.
Source: (Ben Kolde / Unsplash)

How do I prepare for an open house?

Before you attend an open house, it’s a good idea to do some research about anything that’s new to you about this house as compared to every other house you’re considering.

Is it a different neighborhood than you’ve considered before? Check out information about anything neighborhood-related that’s important to you, like schools, taxes, whether the house is in a flood zone, etc.

Is it a different style or size of house? Check out what the history and layout of that house style is or what’s possible to do with that square footage online. It’s better to do a bit of research beforehand so you can ask relevant questions while you’re at the open house.

Prepare a list of questions that are pertinent to the house you’re visiting. If you weren’t able to find information as part of your research, be sure to ask the listing agent; they should have that information or be able to get back to you after consulting the seller.

How long should I spend at an open house?

Most serious buyers are trying to hit several open houses in the same day and probably won’t linger longer than 20 or 30 minutes, depending. Many buyers strategize their open house route to maximize the number of houses they can visit. Less time spent driving means more time at open houses, assessing potential new homes.

You can spend longer than 30 minutes if you really need the time to understand the house or have a lot of questions for the agent. However, be mindful of the fact that they will have to help other potential buyers as well, and they will not be able to dedicate several hours exclusively to your questions.

If you need more insight than you can get in 20 to 30 minutes, asking for a private viewing or to follow up with questions may be a good idea.

What if I missed the open house?

You can request a private showing — or, increasingly, a virtual showing — from the listing agent.

Virtual showings have become more popular as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and are a great way to tour a property if you can’t make the open house due to timing or distance. Reach out to the listing agent to ask if you can still see the house and when and how they’re able to show it to you.

Please don’t request either a private or virtual showing if you are just browsing and not all that interested in this house, as private and virtual showings can be time-consuming and complicated for the agent to coordinate.

Schedule a private showing with your agent so that he can give his opinion and look for things that you might not have been looking for.
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    Ryan DeAmaral Real Estate Agent
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    Ryan DeAmaral
    Ryan DeAmaral Real Estate Agent at Twin Oaks Real Estate INC
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What if I really like the house?

If you’re interested in the house you’re viewing, it’s time to get your buyer’s agent involved.

Ryan DeAmaral, who works with 84% more single-family homes than the average agent in Benicia, California, recommends that you “schedule a private showing with your agent so that he can give his opinion and look for things that you might not have been looking for. Do another showing that’s private after the open house as possible.”

He advises you also to disregard the number of attendees at the open house, as it’s impossible for you, an attendee, to gauge things like whether you attended at the peak hour, how serious any of the attendees are about buying, or even how much they like the house itself.

What is a broker’s open house?

This is an open house that’s limited to real estate agents and brokers, so they can see whether it would be a good fit for their buyer clients.

As a buyer, you will not be able to attend a broker’s open house. You can, however, ask your buyer’s agent to attend a broker’s open house on your behalf if you are really interested in the property.

Broker’s open houses are usually held at times less convenient for the public, such as on weekdays instead of weekends or working hours instead of evenings.

An open house is a real estate tradition that can help buyers learn whether a home is a good fit for them. Now that you know all about open houses, it’s time to ask your agent to help you line some up for discovery!

Header Image Source: (James Khashchuk / Unsplash)