A typical Sunday open house generally will have four types of visitors.
The first two groups are the casual visitors. Some people live vicariously by visiting open houses they know they never could afford, and others are neighbors who pop in, curious about the price and condition of nearby homes.
The remaining two types - prospective buyers who need to explore the local housing market and serious buyers who are ready to make an offer - should attend an open house with a clear plan. And while both of those groups should have an agenda when they head out for an afternoon of home viewing, the items on those agendas may be a bit different.
“Novice buyers should look at open houses as part of a fact-finding mission,” said Trish Szego, co-owner of ERA Elite Group in Fairfax. “A lot of people start looking for homes on the Internet, but you have to make sure they really look like what you’re seeing online. You’re really learning what the market has to offer when you go to an open house.”
Ms. Szego recommended exploring different neighborhoods to see what kind of amenities are available and to decide what amenities mean the most to you.
“Every neighborhood has its own pulse, so it’s a great idea for buyers to hit a bunch of open houses and get a feel for the atmosphere in different neighborhoods,” said Rachel Valentino, an associate broker with Keller Williams Realty in Bethesda.
Ms. Valentino said buyers can make the home-buying experience easier for themselves and their Realtors if they spend time focusing on the lifestyle they want when they evaluate a community and an individual home.
“Visiting a lot of open houses is the best way to get an education about different neighborhoods and your price point,” said Tyler Jeffrey, a Realtor with the Mandy and David Team at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in the District. “You can get an idea of what your money will buy. If you think you want to buy in a particular neighborhood, you may find that all you can afford is a fixer-upper in that area.”
Most buyer agents insist that their buyers meet with a lender for a prequalification or a preapproval consultation before looking at homes because that is the only way to know how much you can qualify to spend on a home. Consumers who are not sure if they want to buy or rent can get a feel for what is available on the market without visiting a lender first, Mr. Jeffrey said.
“You can use an online mortgage calculator to estimate payments, but it doesn’t always show an accurate price point,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “If you’re a serious buyer, you should go to a lender before visiting open houses because you don’t want to be in the position of falling in love with a home you can’t afford.”
Jennifer Caterini, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Arlington, said buyers who are not yet working with an agent can visit multiple open houses in different price ranges to see what they are like and then visit a lender for what she calls “reality therapy.”
“It’s wiser, though, to start with the lender so you have a general idea of what you can spend and what you’re comfortable with,” Ms. Caterini said.
While plenty of prospective buyers get distracted by furnishings and decorative items, there are more valuable reasons to visit an open house. Many buyers use an open house as an opportunity to meet a Realtor and ask questions about the home-buying process.
“Buyers who have yet to sign on with an agent should use an open house as a way to interview agents,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “You can use home visits as a kind of catalog as you meet a variety of agents and look at them with an objective eye.”
Buyers need to be aware that the agent at an open house represents the seller for that listing, but if you are not interested in making an offer on that particular property, you can ask if the Realtor will work as your buyer’s agent.
Ms. Valentino suggested arranging a follow-up meeting with a Realtor you meet at an open house and then also interviewing Realtors recommended by friends before choosing a buyer’s agent.
In addition to finding a Realtor and getting an idea of what types of homes are available in different neighborhoods, Realtors recommend using initial home visits to establish your priorities.
“An open-house visit is a great opportunity to decide what you like and don’t like, such as an open kitchen or a separate formal dining room,” Ms. Caterini said. “The more you see, the better you can visualize what you want, such as one-level or multilevel living. You can also get a sense of room sizes so that when you go on the MLS to look at listings you’ll have an idea of what a 10-by-12-foot room feels like.”
Ms. Szego said buyers need to be careful not to get caught up in the frills and decorative elements of a home.
“You need to pay attention to the functionality of a house, particularly the layout, since that’s something that isn’t as easily changed as paint or wallpaper,” Ms. Szego said.
The other important function is to write down a list of wishes, especially if you are home shopping with someone else.
“You need to find out what you want in terms of your price point and neighborhood and then figure out where you are willing to compromise, such as upping your price range, downsizing within the neighborhood or choosing a different neighborhood,” Ms. Szego said.
Ms. Valentino said buyers’ priorities often evolve as they look at homes. She suggested thinking carefully about commuter routes, your daily routine and what rooms you use most for day-to-day living to narrow your criteria.
“Serious buyers should take a critical look at small details and the workmanship of the home to look for potential issues to discuss with a home inspector, such as the age of appliances and the HVAC system or the roof,” Ms. Valentino said.
Buyers sometimes assume they want a fixer-upper because of the price, but Mr. Jeffrey warned that buyers should consult carefully with a Realtor and with homeowners who can talk about the cost - both financially and in time - of taking on a major renovation. He said buyers always should understand the costs of homeownership, including maintenance and repairs.
“If you are ready to make an offer, you should be looking at issues that could impact your budget, such as landscaping needs or redoing the basement,” Ms. Caterini said. “You need to look carefully to decide which property will meet your needs in terms of your furniture and your lifestyle.”
Mr. Jeffery said that in many areas, serious buyers must be prepared to make an almost immediate offer because inventory is tight. In the most popular local markets, he said, homes sell at an average of less than 10 days, with an overall average of 24 days on the market.
“One mistake many buyers make is to judge demand for a particular house based on the open-house traffic,” Ms. Valentino said. “If there’s a ton of traffic, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be competing with 10 other offers. And if the place is relatively empty, it doesn’t mean you are the only interested buyer.”
Once you’ve decided to become a homeowner, you’ll need to have your financial paperwork and a preapproved loan in place, a budget for homeownership costs and moving, a strong relationship with a good Realtor and the confidence that you’ve done your homework and know your local market.
“The more places you’ve seen, the better you’ll feel when you make an offer because you’ve seen the competition,” Ms. Valentino said.