Preparing for an open house is like throwing a party for a bunch of guests you won’t get to meet. It’s stressful…and a little weird. But if you decide to host one, be aware that buyers will come into your home with steep expectations.
“30 years ago when I used to sell a house, nobody tidied up,” said Zinta Rodgers-Rickert, a top agent in Fairfax, Virginia.
“Nobody made the bed. Nobody cleaned off the kitchen counters or the bathrooms. You understood it was a used house; someone was living there.”
Today? Buyers demand that a house for sale be “as close to perfect as the sellers can possibly afford,” Rodger-Rickert adds.
This isn’t the type of test you can pull an all-nighter to cram for. You’ll need to start your open house preparations at least a month early as part of your general go-to-market plan:
One month before:
1. Gut check: Is this open house worth it?
2. Pack, sort, and purge your belongings.
3. Freshen up paint where needed on the inside and outside of the house.
4. Evaluate your furniture with a fresh eye.
2 to 3 weeks before:
5. Make sure you’ve optimized your open house date and time.
6. Market the house online.
7. Send out your open house invitations and post flyers around the community.
8. Get all your open house signage together.
1 week before:
9. Do a depersonalization check.
10. Put away heirlooms, valuables, and any items not sold with the house.
11. Deep clean and create an action plan to keep the house tidy.
12. Tend to the yard.
One day before:
13. Vacuum, mop, and dust the house.
14. Do a sniff test and take care of any odors.
A few hours before:
15. Crack open the windows, weather permitting.
16. Flip on the lights.
17. Take a dryer sheet for a spin.
18. Put away the bills and paperwork.
19. Remove pets.
20. Take out your trash and hide the bins.
21. Stash everyday clutter.
22. Give each room a final check.
23. Put out your signs!
…And then skedaddle!
Now that we’ve covered all that ground from a bird’s-eye view, let’s go through your open house preparations task by task.
1 month before…
1. Quick gut check: Is this open house worth it?
Before you work yourself into a complete froth over this event—cleaning bucket in one hand, trash bag in another—do a quick reality check on whether an open house is necessary in the first place. Could you get away with showing appointments?
In a survey of top agents across the country, HomeLight found that on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 being “completely useless” and 10 being “absolutely essential”) most agents ranked open houses at a mere 3.
Open houses often attract lookie-loos, curious passersby, and nosy neighbors rather than serious buyers. Unless your open house stands to attract 100 people or more because it’s in a trendy neighborhood, populated area, or boasts unique features like water views, then you might be better off without one.
2. Pack, sort, and purge
Depending on the size of your home, you can stretch the decluttering process to a few months before you list, but experts HomeLight spoke with recommend allowing at least a month. You don’t want to weigh what to do with the silverware your aunt gave you or the bicycle that needs a new chain when you’re under a time crunch.
A few tricks to tackle this daunting task, courtesy of HomeLight’s guide to downsizing your belongings:
- Move in concentric circles from the least used areas of the house (garage, basement, attic) to the most used (bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen). People stash most of their junk in the outer realms of the house so you’ll feel like you knocked out a bigger chunk of the project faster if you start there. It’s good motivation!
- Think small. Go through a single box, drawer, or surface at a time, allowing the patience to consider the value of each item you find. Take on too much at once and you’ll end up defeated on the couch watching Netflix.
How do you know when you’re done? Julie Dana, an interior decorator since 2002 and owner of The Home Stylist, an interior decorating and staging business in the Buffalo, New York, area, recommends that you remove half of your belongings to make it look and feel more spacious.
That doesn’t mean you have to trash or donate 50% of what you own. You can rent a storage unit. To save money, stack your boxes headed to the new house neatly in the garage.
“People know and can see what a garage looks like,” Rodgers-Rickert said.
“I’ve never seen it affect a sale.”
3. Freshen up paint where needed on the inside and outside of the house
If you’ve lived in your house for any length of time, chances are, you’ll need to paint something before you sell your house, whether it’s the front door, exterior trim, an out-of-date bathroom, kitchen cabinets, or a bedroom.
You don’t have to repaint the house completely, but Dana recommends a light neutral paint color in the bedrooms, especially if you have children. These rooms should be “as gender-neutral and age-neutral as possible,” she said.
Homebuyers are highly visual—83 percent want to see pictures or a virtual tour of a property online—but they also need a clean canvas to imagine themselves in a space.
“If you’re a buyer who has boys, it’s harder to imagine their family there if a bedroom is all frilly,” Dana said.
When in doubt, check out HomeLight’s list of the top home staging paint colors recommended by seasoned real estate agents.
4. Evaluate your furniture with a fresh eye
Is your furniture oversized for your house? Too ornate for a home with traditional architecture? Furniture that doesn’t look like it belongs in the space will create visual dissonance for open house visitors. Ask your agent or a professional stager for their opinion.
“I had one home that was a million-dollar home, but they had very small teak furniture. I love teak furniture, but it wasn’t an appropriate size for the home itself,” Rodgers-Rickert said.
“So we did stage a master bedroom and a living room.”
2 to 3 weeks before…
5. Make sure you’ve optimized your open house date and time.
HomeLight dug into Google Trends data around the best time to host an open house and spoke with top agents on the subject. That led to a few key insights:
- People are most likely to search for “open houses near me” between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. on a Sunday, so host your open house on a Sunday afternoon for optimal results.
- Interest in open houses wanes around the holidays. If you’re listing around Thanksgiving or Christmas, hit pause on your plans.
- Think about other events happening in your community like sports games or festivals that would conflict or draw foot traffic away from your open house before deciding on a time.
- Schedule weekday open houses for when buyers get off work.
- Don’t be afraid of your neighbor’s event. It’s wise to time your open house with others on the block because buyers will stop by multiple places and you could capitalize on the overflow.
6. Market the house online
Give your agent the reins here. You should expect them to post about your open house on places like the local multiple listing service and Facebook as well as the top real estate listing sites such as Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor. But feel free to post about the event on your personal social media channels as well. The more people who show up, the better!
7. Send out your open house invitations and post flyers around the community
Your agent will send out official open house invitations to their broker network. You can also create open house flyers to hand out at the gym or the office using DIY sites like Canva. Make sure your ad materials include critical information like the open house date and time, your home address, the price of the house, and your real estate agent’s contact information.
8. Get all your open house signage together
Your open house signs should help visitors who planned to attend your event find your house on the day-of and also attract more foot traffic. Start thinking about this a little ahead so you and your agent can order what you need online or get the materials together from your agent’s office.
1 week before…
9. Do a depersonalization check
Agents and home stagers agree that if you leave out family photos, monogrammed items, and other personal knickknacks, buyers become distracted. People can’t help but look at this stuff—but you’re not selling your family; you’re selling your house.
“Your typical buyer comes right in and wants to know who’s living there,” Rodgers-Rickert said. Based on your photos and belongings, they might unconsciously start judging what you’re like, which carries over to their opinion of the house. To eliminate that from the equation—follow HomeLight’s guide to depersonalizing the house (without losing its charm) for more actionable tips.
10. Put away any heirlooms and any items not sold with the house
If you have something with high sentimental or monetary value, now’s the time to tuck it away and replace it if necessary. If the chandelier over the dining table is going to your new house, remove it so that buyers don’t fall in love with it. “I would also take it to the extent of … not even turning it over to movers. I’m constantly hearing about things that go missing during the move,” Rodgers-Rickert said.
11. Deep clean and create an action plan to keep the house tidy.
We know you expected this one, so we’ve hit a few spots that you might have missed:
- Clean around your front door and inside the front light fixture. In fact, make sure any lighting is free of dead bugs and cobwebs.
- Wipe down the windowsills and at least clean the windows on the first floor. Take the screens off those windows and remove any window coverings to let in more light.
- Wipe the baseboards and air vents.
- Check and refresh the caulk around the sinks and the bathtub. Change out the shower curtain to a light, neutral, solid color.
- Launder and fluff the bedding, and neutralize it. “A lot of times, patterned bedding looks busy,” Dana said. “9 times out of 10, I can flip that cover over to a solid side.”
You don’t want all your hard work to fly out the window because of daily living, especially if you have a young family. Decide whether you’ll give your children free roam of one area of the house to make last-minute cleanup easier, or designate a rolling suitcase, your trunk, or large storage bins as places to toss anything that needs to be out of sight. (That includes toys, toothbrushes, and tissue boxes.)
Morgan Hutchinson, a mother of two children, wrote in Vogue magazine about having her family use one bathroom whenever possible to keep their home’s other bathrooms neat after they put their home on the market.
For quick cleanup, she spread an old white towel over her vanity when applying makeup to catch loose powder and brush hairs, and bought her husband a beard bib to avoid shaving messes. She also used rubbing alcohol and microfiber towels to make the vanity and fixtures sparkle.
12. Don’t forget the yard.
Curb appeal helps buyers warm up to your house. In fact, 90% of top agents suggest sellers improve their curb appeal and 94% say great curb appeal can even boost the value of your house, according to data from HomeLight. Keep it simple and mow the lawn, trim the greenery, pull weeds along the walkway, and add seasonal flowers for pops of color.
You also can remove years of grime from your home’s exterior with a pressure wash. Home Depot charges under $50 to rent a pressure washer. Get a 40 degree or low-pressure nozzle and keep the nozzle at least six inches away from the surface of your house, especially if you have a vulnerable surface like wood or stucco.
1 day before…
13. Vacuum, mop, and dust
No matter how you’ve cleaned already, take another pass with the vacuum and any quick pick-up dust and mop products, such as a trusty Swiffer.
14. Sniff around
You want buyers to smell a good deal—not literally smell anything strange in your house.
“The minute they walk in and they smell something they don’t like, they’re gone. So be very conscientious of whether there are food odors, smoke, pets…” Rodgers-Rickert said.
Ask a reliable friend or kind neighbor to give your home an honest sniff test. Because plug-in air fresheners can irritate people’s allergies, knock out any lingering aromas with an odor eliminator, such as Fresh Wave Odor Removing Spray ($7.99 at Target), which earned the EPA’s Safer Choice label for eco-friendly ingredients; Mrs. Meyer’s Lavender Room Freshener Spray ($5.49 at Target); or Positive Essence Thai Lemongrass Linen & Room Spray ($12.99 at Amazon.com).
A few hours before
15. Open the windows, if weather permits, to let in fresh air.
35% of top agents recommend this as a house showing tip in the spring months.
16. Turn on the lights so your house looks warm and welcoming from the street.
Buyers love light and bright.
17. Take a dryer sheet for a quick spin.
Real estate agents used to recommend setting out fresh-baked cookies for buyers, but this has become a cliché, Rodgers-Rickert said. You’re better off with a neutral aroma or the cozy scent of fabric softener, she said.
18. Make sure you’ve put away any bills or paperwork containing personal information.
In addition to depersonalizing the space, there’s no need to give people the opportunity to be nosy.
19. Remove any pets, if possible.
If you have a quiet critter like a turtle, that’s not going to bother anyone, but make arrangements for your dog or cat to be boarded for the afternoon—or put the pet snugly in a carrier or cage in the garage.
“That way they don’t have to worry about a dog barking,” said top Albuquerque, New Mexico, real estate agent Pete Veres.
“When you have buyers coming into the house, you want to minimize distractions as much as possible so they can focus on the home.”
20. Tuck the kitchen and bathroom trash cans in a closet or in a cupboard under the sink.
“People think you must have an issue with storage if you have to have things out,” Dana said.
21. Stash that everyday clutter (toothbrushes, toiletries, etc.)
Keep a few storage containers, like this decorative wooden basket from Amazon, under the sink for quick cleanups.
22. Give every room the once-over from the doorway for anything that looks out of place.
Open the door, check it out, move on.
23. Put out your signs.
Have several posted outside the house as well as a few on the corner of any high-traffic areas to get more visibility.
Buh bye, now!
Lastly, go out for errands or some fun for a few hours while the open house is underway. Sellers don’t usually hang around during an open house so that buyers can visualize the place as their own. Plus, after your hard work, you’ve earned the right to take your mind off this for a bit.
Trust your agent to tell you how it all pans out. They’ve been through this lots of times and understand your stress. “Know that you’ve got a good working relationship and trusting relationship with the person you’re choosing to work with,” Rodgers-Rickert said.