- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010

In the age of virtual-reality and video tours of properties, does holding an open house still sell homes? Almost 90 percent of homebuyers start their search for a home by signing onto the Internet, says the National Association of Realtors (NAR), where they find listings with multiple photos, virtual tours and videos.

The NAR reports in its 2009 “Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers” that 46 percent of buyers go to open houses in their search process. Holding an open house will not necessarily result in a home sale, though, as local Realtors can attest. The NAR reports that 12 percent of homebuyers first learned about the home they bought through a yard sign or an open house.

Realtors have mixed feelings about open houses. Some say firmly that a Sunday-afternoon open house is the best way to showcase a property, while others are less convinced that the traditional open house sells a home. In most cases, Realtors discuss the possibility of holding an open house with the sellers.

Sellers, too, have varied opinions.

“Some sellers don’t want an open house at all, while others only want to have one when the home first goes on the market,” says Bonnie Rivkin, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Alexandria, Va. “A few sellers are adamant that their Realtor hold multiple open houses, but most leave the decision up to their agent.”

Bette Deller, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in Laurel, Md., says she holds open houses mostly to “keep all the options open.”

“Most Realtors do a bit of everything to market homes. Open houses typically attract first-time lookers who don’t have an agent, so I can sometimes pick up buyer clients at one,” Ms. Deller says. “There are some buyers who don’t have a computer, either, so they are more likely to be seriously looking at open houses.”

Realtor Leslie Hutchison with Re/Max Distinctive Real Estate in McLean, Va., says more than half of the contracts on her listings are from buyers who visit an open house and then return with their agent.

“If I didn’t hold open houses, my business would be down by at least 25 percent,” Mrs. Hutchison says. “Many buyers don’t want to ‘bother’ their agent to show them every house that comes up, and they prefer to take their time looking on their own to check out neighborhoods and schools. If they haven’t seen it, they can’t buy it.”

The effectiveness of the traditional open house is debated by Realtors and sellers, but most agents agree buyers still need to physically visit homes they may want to buy, whether it is during a private visit with their agent or during an open house.

“People like to see, touch and smell a home,” Ms. Rivkin says. “The Internet is a great place to start and to narrow down what you want, but then people really need to see a home in person.”

Mrs. Hutchison agrees that buyers need to use all their senses when making an important decision like buying a home.

“Videos and tours can easily hide an unattractive feature or a boxy, choppy design,” she says. “You can close the drapes in a virtual tour to hide the view of the highway or the dump next door. Most virtual tours will omit the bathroom that needs remodeling or the moldy basement. You can’t smell the stale smoke or cat odor from the photographs.”

Pat Kline, an associate broker with Avery Hess Realtors in Springfield, Va., says serious buyers, those with a preapproved loan and a buyer agent, usually prefer to visit homes with their agent when other potential buyers are not in the property.

“Most sellers don’t really want to have an open house because they know a lot of the traffic is from neighbors, not serious buyers,” Mrs. Kline says. “In my 20 years in real estate, I have only sold two homes through an open house. Holding an open house won’t help a bad listing, and good listings don’t need one.”

Jeff Lockard, a Realtor and vice president of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in the District, says open houses used to be the No. 1 marketing tool used by Realtors.

“Today, virtual tours and videos are step one, and an open house is step two,” Mr. Lockard says. “Realtors need to do a quality video or virtual tour to pique interest in a property. Open houses are still important, but they really come after an Internet search. It used to be that we wouldn’t allow anyone to see a home until after the first open house in order to create a sense of urgency, but now people can get a feel for a place before they see it in person.”

Mr. Lockard says buyers still need to physically visit homes to see the natural light and get a better feel for the flow of the floor plan.

“Buying a home is a truly emotional experience - when the buyer walks in the front door, they know within the first 3 feet if it feels like ‘home,’ ” Mrs. Hutchison says. “So many times a buyer will call me saying they saw ‘the One’ on the Internet. They love the photos and description and are anxious to see it. But when they arrive, it doesn’t live up to what they were hoping it would be.

“The listing said four bedrooms and two baths, but there are two on each floor without a master-bedroom bathroom, or they wanted all four bedrooms on the same floor. Or everything is wonderful and they would buy it except for the tiny backyard or the busy street.”

While video tours of homes are becoming more prevalent with some agents, Ms. Deller prefers virtual tours that string together high-quality photos of every home.

“We are testing video tours right now, but so far we mostly use very high-quality photography for our virtual tours,” Mr. Lockard says. “The problem with video is that if it locks up or is too slow to load, people will just move on to another home.”

Mrs. Kline says she prefers virtual tours and photos rather than videos.

“People don’t want to be slowed down by videos and waiting for the camera to pan across the closet doors,” Mrs. Kline says. “Photos work great for people to eliminate some homes from the get-go.”

Valerie Blake, an associate broker with Prudential Carruthers Realtors in the District, says she creates virtual tours for her properties and is working on developing videos that will look professional yet be inexpensive to produce.

Ms. Rivkin, too, finds videos to be costly to produce, although she does them for some of her listings.

“The best thing is to have tons of photos for each listing to bring people in the door,” Ms. Rivkin says. “Beyond that, every house is different in terms of how you market it. I try to tailor my plan for each property.”

Ms. Blake says open houses work best in neighborhoods with a lot of foot traffic.

“If you have to drive to get there, I find that most people to prefer to come with their agents when it is more convenient for them,” Ms. Blake says. “I get the best results at open houses I hold in Cleveland Park, Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill, because those are places where people are already walking around.”

Ms. Blake and other Realtors advertise their open houses in a variety of ways, including on their own Web sites and sites such as Craigslist, Trulia and others.

“Our choice of advertising is neighborhood-driven,” Mr. Lockard says. “In Kalorama and Georgetown, we use print ads, but for Logan Circle, U Street and the 14th Street corridor, we tend to do an e-mail and online marketing campaign.”

Mrs. Hutchison conducts a multifaceted marketing campaign for each open house, including sending postcards to neighbors and to nearby renters and e-mail fliers to every Realtor who has shown her listings and everyone who has visited one of her open houses.

“Buying a home can be just like a job interview - someone can look great on paper with a well-written resume but be a complete disaster when they show up for the face-to-face interview,” Mrs. Hutchison says.

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