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Cover story: Look beyond staging at open house

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2010

Prospective homebuyers know the open-house routine by now. The Realtor will greet them, ask them to sign in, offer them freshly baked cookies or perhaps a piece of candy and then start chatting about the best features of the home.

Buyers may be attracted by the scent of cinnamon or melting chocolate chips, but they also can be distracted by a charmingly arranged room or the sight of sunlight flooding through freshly washed windows. A colorful pot of flowers on the front step or some lush green plants inside also can be diverting.

As any avid watcher of home and garden television programs knows, home staging took the real estate industry by storm years ago. Staging a home to look its best is a natural instinct on the part of sellers and their real estate agents, along with cleaning a home to perfection and adding some nice touches to appeal to buyers.

Serious homebuyers need to fight the temptation to be drawn in by staging and look past the highlighted features if they want the time spent at any open house to be more valuable.

While no one suggests that homebuyers bypass a second or third visit to a home they are interested in buying or forgo a home inspection to get a true picture of a property's condition, there are some things they can look for during their first visit that can help them make an informed decision about whether to make an offer.

"Sometimes the most important thing to do at an open house is to think about how you feel in the house and how your family would fit into the residence," says Dolly Riegert Woodruff, a Realtor with Prudential Carruthers Realtors in Alexandria, Va. "If you find yourself picturing how you would live in the home, it makes sense to schedule a follow-up visit to gather more details."

Michelle Buckman, a Realtor with W.C. & A.N. Miller, a Long & Foster Real Estate company in the District, agrees that buyers first need to decide if they like the home enough to put it on the list for a potential purchase.

"Once the buyers know the place has the right number of bedrooms and baths and has other features they are looking for, they need to take a serious look at the property," Mrs. Buckman says. "For example, if the home has a basement, they need to see if it smells damp or moldy. Sometimes when the agent has cookies baking or scented candles lit it is because they are masking the smell of a damp basement. Look at the walls in the basement and other places to see if they have water stains."

Brian Koepf, a home inspector and founder of Gatekeeper Inspections, which conducts home inspections in Virginia, Maryland and the District, suggests that though homebuyers should not substitute their own instincts for a home inspection, they can learn a lot during an open house.

"Homebuyers should use their senses to get a good picture of the property's condition," Mr. Koepf says. "They should use their sense of smell to look for mold, especially in the basement. They should use their hearing to listen for the sound of a rattling furnace or air conditioner because that could indicate an older system in need of repair. Creaky floorboards or stairs could indicate a problem. They can use their sense of touch as they walk around the home."

Mr. Koepf says he was on a home inspection in a home where visitors were asked to remove their shoes.

"When the buyers and I got to the basement, our feet got wet from the carpet," Mr. Koepf says. "It was pretty simple to figure out they had a water problem after that."

Water problems can be costly to repair, so Mr. Koepf suggests looking for damp spots on the walls and water stains on ceilings, especially below the kitchen and bathrooms. He suggests that buyers who are concerned about water issues ask their inspector to lift the carpet in one corner to check for dampness. Mrs. Buckman says that while cosmetic things such as freshly painted walls are nice to have, buyers need to make sure they are not hiding water stains.

"In one home, my clients checked inside the cubby underneath a dormer window and found some water there even though it hadn't rained in days," Mrs. Riegert Woodruff says. "When we went outside, we discovered that the top of the roof ridge cap was bent and water could be seen trailing down from it. In that case, they found enough things wrong that they decided not to make an offer."

More often, buyers take note of items during an open house that they will have a home inspector investigate if they choose to make an offer.

"Buyers should try to think like a home inspector when they are at an open house," Mr. Koepf says. "I always start looking at a place by looking all the way around the house and all the way around every room before I start in with tunnel vision and focus on individual things. Buyers should take in the big picture first."

Potential buyers with young children also should check for lead-paint problems.

"If the home was built after 1978, then buyers are OK, but if they are looking at an older home, they need to have the paint checked out," Mr. Koepf says.

On the outside, Mrs. Buckman suggests that potential buyers walk around the property to see the size of the yard and then check on whether the gutters are secure. Mr. Koepf recommends checking the grading to be sure the soil slopes away from the house.

"Buyers can glance at the roof shingles to see if they look secure or shabby, and they can look at where the electricity and cable comes into the house to see if it looks worn or not," Mr. Koepf says.

Mrs. Riegert Woodruff suggests that buyers look at the yard to see if it has too much moisture, which could indicate a drainage problem.

"The really important things that buyers should be careful to check on are the age of the main systems such as the heating and air conditioning, the roof, the plumbing and the electrical wiring," Mrs. Buckman says. "Those are things that can be costly to repair, so buyers should ask about them and have them checked by a home inspector."

Potential buyers also can look for cosmetic issues inside the house.

"One of the first things stagers will do is to empty or at least clean up the closets, and so buyers are sometimes caught up by the neatness or prettiness of the closets instead of how many there are or how large they are," Mrs. Riegert Woodruff says.

"I actually bought a five-bedroom home not that long ago that doesn't have a linen closet on the bedroom level. I hadn't even noticed how tiny the hall closet is," she says. "People need to think about their possessions and how they will store them. For instance, if you have a baby, you need to notice whether there is a first-floor closet big enough to hold the stroller."

Mrs. Buckman says buyers should always open blinds and curtains to check on the view, because if they are looking right at the neighbors, that is a problem that cannot be fixed.

As an experienced home inspector, Mr. Koepf warns homebuyers against getting overzealous in their own inspection.

"People need to keep their safety in mind and avoid crawling into an attic space or messing around with the fuse box," Mr. Koepf says. "And speaking from experience, everyone should be careful in a house with kids and pets of the hazard of tripping over toys."

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