- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

The question about whether or not it is effective to host an open house, especially in the sluggish environment sellers face today, sparks animated debate among local Realtors. Some experts believe that these presentations of the property are a waste of time and energy in today's market, while others believe these sessions are an essential marketing tool.

The statistics also send a mixed message: While results from the 2006 Profile of Buyers and Sellers, published by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show that 47 percent of all homebuyers attend open houses, when asked where they learned about the home they purchased, “open house” was never listed as the source.

Open-house proponents argue that if the home is presented well and the event is held during the right time frame, it can be a successful tool to attract potential buyers, appeal to their senses and highlight the major selling points of a home. These Realtors say that, especially in a buyer's market where there are so many homes to choose from, any means that can be used to get prospective buyers in the door should be utilized.

Trudy Severa, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in Reston, says that open houses are achieving the same outcome they did a few years ago when the market was fiercely competitive and that they are still the best way to get feedback from a large number of people within a condensed time frame.

“Anything you can do helps,” says Ms. Severa. “It's a numbers game, and there is no way to know the residual effects [that an open house can have].”

To effectively prepare for an open house, Ms. Severa advises her sellers to go visit a few model homes in their area and take note of how they are staged and presented. She says it is critical that the home must be “toothbrush and Q-tip clean” and free of any clutter. She adds that sellers can get the most bang for their buck by ensuring that the paint and carpet are in excellent condition.

The baths, kitchen and master bedroom are the rooms that get the most attention when potential buyers walk through a house, and sellers must take down photos, knickknacks and items in these rooms that convey their own personality. For example, if the sellers have strong political affiliations and have related posters or pictures up, they need to put them away because not all buyers will share the same views.

“Sellers must wrap their minds around the fact that the house is not theirs anymore,” say Ms. Severa.

The home should not be cold and sterile, but sellers need to depersonalize it as much as possible so that potential new owners can visualize their own things there.

“For example, you may be proud of your collections, but the buyer doesn't need to know that you collect teacups,” she says.

When scheduling open houses, Ms. Severa recommends not having them too frequently; she says one or two events a month are usually sufficient.

Dale Mattison, a Realtor with the Mattison Group at Long & Foster Real Estate in Chevy Chase, admits that one of the major benefits of the open house is actually for the Realtor. The agent has the opportunity to meet real live buyers, and, if they are not interested in the featured home, he or she can assist them in their ongoing search.

Of course, in order to forge that relationship with the agent, potential buyers have to feel that they can speak freely, ask questions and give an honest appraisal of the property. Prospects need to be able to give their opinions without worrying about offending the current owners, so it is best that the sellers not be present during the event.

Mr. Mattison says, “I need to be able to ask - what do you love and what do you hate about this house? They won't say they hate that chartreuse color in the bedroom if the sellers are right there.”

Especially in a shaky economic climate, offering encouragement and arming potential buyers with the facts about their buying options can make the open house even more effective. Mario Rubio, a Realtor with Rubio Real Estate in Annandale, suggests having a loan officer/mortgage banker on hand at the event to address any concerns.

“That is the key,” says Mr. Rubio. He points out that many buyers are on the fence right now or are nervous about financing a home, but if the open house is instructive as well as revealing, it can be advantageous.

In addition to new techniques such as having financial professionals present, some Realtors have turned to combining forces and having group open houses. Lee R. Goldstein, a Realtor with Northgate Realty LLC in Chevy Chase, recently participated with a number of Realtors representing different brokers in a unique neighborhood house tour in Colonial Village in the District. Participants were able to view between seven and eight different listings, ranging in price from $500,000 to more than $1 million. Mr. Goldstein says that the turnout was enthusiastic and that he hopes to use this unique approach again.

“Now, with things being slower, like everything else, open houses are even more important because you never know where that one buyer can come from,” says Mr. Goldstein.

Despite some of these positive experiences, not all experts agree that open houses are worthwhile. Terry Brown, a Realtor with RE/MAX Allegiance in the District, says they are only “mildly helpful” in the current market. He says his experience has been that success is tied to location; for example, Capitol Hill is a close-knit community, so he could reasonably predict a sizable turnout for an open house.

“If location demand is low, then it may be a waste of time,” he says. “In a good market, you can do open houses anywhere and do them well.”

Right now, however, he has observed that some open houses are going unattended, as homes continue to linger on the market.

Glen W. Sutcliffe, a Realtor with W.C. & A.N. Miller Realtors in the District, believes that opening the doors to curious buyers during the first two to three weeks a house is on the market is wise, but after that small window of opportunity, it is not very constructive.

“I firmly believe that the house has to sell within the first month,” says Mr. Sutcliffe. If not, he says, the house will need to be repositioned in the market and possibly repriced, as leery buyers wonder why the property seems to be unpopular.

Mr. Sutcliffe's best advice to having a lucrative open house is to give buyers the time to review the house at their own pace, without feeling pressured.

“Ensure that every person feels welcome, but then leave them alone,” he says. “Too often, the buyer walks in and feels accosted.”

If sellers don't have time to prepare the home and ensure it's in top-notch shape, better to wait until the home can make the best impression. When walking into an open house, the public should be “wowed” by the curb appeal and then the gleaming floors, clean countertops and sparkling appliances and fixtures.

If repairs are needed, if an unpleasant odor pervades the rooms, or if too many knickknacks are taking up space, buyers will easily be distracted by the negative and will miss the redeeming qualities and upgrades to the house.

However, sellers don't have to spend a lot of money to make the house meticulous and gleaming, says Mr. Sutcliffe. “All of that can be done with paper towels and two bottles of Windex, and anyone can do that,” he says.

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