- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Have online virtual tours replaced the good, old-fashioned open house?

Although no one in the real estate business will contemplate stepping backward into the pre-Internet age, many agree that buyers, sellers and agents still reap the benefits of a well-organized open house. Some agents swear by them, and many, in fact, list their open houses on the Web.

A little fewer than half of buyers in a current national survey say they attend open houses in their search for a new home. Up to 80 percent say they use the Internet.

Patricia Vucich of RE/MAX Realty in Takoma Park gave seminars on how to conduct an open house to agents 15 years ago, when the Internet was in its infancy.

She says she still uses the same methods, simply because they work.

“While the Internet has allowed some buyers to purchase a home relying upon online information and photographs, there’s no substitute for actually visiting a property and the neighborhood,” Ms. Vucich says.

The numbers of buyers using open houses as an information source in their home search has fluctuated through the years. Stephanie Singer of the National Association of Realtors says a recent NAR profile of home buyers and sellers found that 47 percent of buyers reported using open houses in 2006.

This number is up from 1997, where 37 percent used open houses. It also is down slightly from 2005 where 55 percent of buyers reported including open houses in their home search.

Agents say that in a slower market, which the Washington area is currently experiencing, open houses can be a valuable publicity tool.

Open houses differ from regular showings. Instead of merely one potential buyer, 10 or more visitors can arrive at the same time. However, real estate agents point out that among sincerely interested buyers are neighbors or folks out for a weekend drive. They say, however, that those same people may have family members or friends in the market. Word of mouth is also a valuable selling tool.

“Open houses send buyers out to look at the market’s latest offerings,” Ms. Vucich says. “They also allow an agent to take buyers to different neighborhoods and sample representative listings without making appointment to see the houses.”

An open house can help a seller get the public appraisal of his home, so he can make adjustments to improve the image of the house. Agents say an open house can be equally valuable for the seller, as it will provide specific information about a particular property and its surroundings in a more informal setting.

Open houses also entice those buyers who wouldn’t necessarily go through the steps to make a formal appointment, real estate agents say.

Jill Landsman at the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors says that despite growth in use of the Internet for home searches, she has not seen a decline in the number of open houses.

“There’s a tremendous amount of networking that can be done at an open house,” Ms. Landsman says. “At an open house, the Realtor will have information about the house, know things about the neighborhood, can give generic information about schools and provide an overall picture of the community.”

An added benefit for agents is the possibility of meeting prospective clients.

Ms. Vucich says that within a few months, one or more of the neighbors usually will have put a house on the market. If she has met them at an open house, she may have an opportunity to be the listing agent.

“Sure, I’d like to spend Sundays at brunch or on the Potomac River with my fishing rods, but since an open house makes seeing the house easy on agents and buyers, I’ll do them,” Ms. Vucich says.

She says that most sellers expect to have an open house at the beginning of a new listing.

“Some agents continue to hold [open houses] until the property sells,” says Ms. Vucich, who monitors open house traffic. If the number of visitors falls, she reacts by limiting the open houses.

Trudy Severa of Long & Foster Real Estate in Reston says that although open houses can be “hit or miss” in terms of yielding prospective buyers, she still holds quite a few of them because many of her clients want to have an open house.

Just a few weeks ago, she held an open house that attracted some 30 persons.

“It makes it convenient to get the family, kids and pets out and do an open house during a set time,” says Ms. Severa, who, like many agents, advertises open houses online.

In fact, the way open houses are advertised today demonstrates how the Internet has changed the market. Along with traditional advertising, signage and balloons, more agents depend on the Internet to publicize upcoming open houses.

“Now when I place a print advertisement for an open house, I’ll pay an extra fee to have the same ad placed on the publication’s Web site,” Ms. Vucich says.

The NAR’s Ms. Singer says surveys show use of the Internet has steadily increased, from 2 percent in 1995 to 80 percent of buyers using the Internet throughout their home search in 2006.

This has led some agents to question the usefulness of holding an open house.

“The rise of the Internet, coupled with the increasing use of virtual tours, has greatly reduced the home buyer’s need or desire to see so many homes in person,” says Charles Sullivan of RE/MAX Metropolitan Realty in North Potomac.

But Internet searches have some drawbacks, too. Mr. Sullivan says that buyers using the Internet to conduct their home search might pass up an otherwise good home that simply doesn’t photograph well.

“Open houses are a funny creature in 2007. Sellers like them because they think their home should be open to the public, just as their parents’ home was open on Sunday 30 years ago,” says Mr. Sullivan. But serious buyers rarely wait until the Sunday when open houses are typically held, he says. Instead, they will schedule a showing during the week.

“Many listing agents like them for the dual purpose of keeping their seller clients happy and of recruiting buyer prospects,” Mr. Sullivan says. “Other listing agents consider them to be a waste of a perfectly good Sunday afternoon they could be spending with their families.”

Mr. Sullivan is not alone. Others in the real estate business also believe an open house is not worth the time or effort, since a very low percentage of buyers actually come from the open house.

“Perhaps fewer than one in 40 homes is sold as a result of an open house,” Mr. Sullivan says.

The NAR report shows that when home buyers were surveyed about where they learned about the home they purchased, “open house” did not rate a mention.

However, Ms. Severa says it is important to remember that the open house is just one piece of the entire home-selling process.

In preparation for the open house, Bernice Bridegum of RE/MAX Allegiance in Laurel advises homeowners to make the home as clean and neat as possible.

“Any maintenance or work that needs to be done on the exterior should be done before the open house,” says Ms. Bridegum, emphasizing that curb appeal especially helps draw possible buyers into the home.

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