Winter has several weeks yet to go. But in the realm of real estate it's already spring.
The annual spring home-buying season traditionally kicks off the week after the Super Bowl, which serves as an unofficial cap to a typically slow holiday season.
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More homes are hitting the market and that means would-be buyers can expect to see a pickup in open houses, when real estate agents allow prospective buyers to tour a home, usually within days after it's been listed for sale. Open houses offer more than just the opportunity to get a closer look at a property, so being prepared is key.
"Look at open houses as a fact-finding mission," said Mia Simon, an agent with the real estate brokerage Redfin in Palo Alto, California.
Here are five tips to get the most out of your open house visit:
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Unless you've stumbled upon an open house while on a drive, take time research the home you're going to visit online.
Before you set foot in the house, rule out any potential deal-breakers. Do you have concerns about the schools that serve the area? Is the garage too small for your needs? Is the neighborhood not walkable enough for you? Home listings on websites like Zillow.com, Realtor.com and Trulia.com offer lots of details on homes and neighborhood information that can help you determine whether it's worth it to go to an open house.
2. BRING PROPER TOOLS
Be sure to carry a tape measure, notebook and a camera. You'll need these, especially if you plan on hitting several open houses in one weekend, because you will likely want to follow up with the sales agent later on specific questions.
The tape measure will come in handy, to gauge space for beds and other big furniture pieces.
3. STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN
Rather than settling for a quick walkthrough, consider spending some time at the house, really getting a feel for what it would be like to live there. Staying 20-30 minutes or longer makes it more likely you'll spot something that you might otherwise miss, like a recurring noise.
Don't think twice about opening closet doors, peering underneath a corner section of carpet, inside cabinets or behind paintings, which sometimes may be covering up damage or flaws in the house. You'll also want to check bathroom surfaces for mold.
"It's OK to open closets because you need to see if your clothes are going to fit," said JoAnne Poole, associate broker at Berkshire Hathaway Homesale Realty in Baltimore. "If the refrigerator is going to come with the property you need to open it and make sure it meets your expectations."
Also walk around the house and then around the block. Check out the condition of nearby homes. Are they in disrepair or has the landscaping run amok?
If you're in the market for a condominium, make sure you view any common areas, such as a pool or club house, as well as extra storage. And don't forget the parking area. Is it tandem parking?
4. ENGAGE IN CHIT CHAT
Open houses tend to draw neighbors and maybe even the seller.
Chatting up the other people in the open house to determine if they live in the neighborhood can pay off, as you could glean more information about what the neighborhood is like and whether anyone else on the block may be looking to sell.
Should you encounter the seller at the open house, introduce yourself. That could help down the road, should you put a bid on the house, said Redfin's Simon.
One way is to look around the house for books, framed photos and other personal items that could provide insight into the sellers and perhaps a way to bond over a mutual interest or hobby.
"You're looking for shared experiences, so if you see a bunch of Cal Berkeley gear and you went to Stanford, maybe you don't want to submit a cover letter with you in a Stanford hat," said Simon. "Something that little can put you over the edge in a competitive situation."
5. CRASH THE BROKERS' TOUR
Often, an agent hired to sell a home will offer buyers' agents an opportunity to visit the property ahead of the initial open house. This so-called brokers' tour typically happens midweek, during business hours. But if you can make it, it's a good way to get a look at the home ahead of other prospective buyers, giving you extra time to consider making an offer before the broader open house.
A newly listed home will have an open house within days of hitting the market, especially in markets where there's a lot of competition for few properties. But in areas where there may be more homes available than buyers, an agent could list the home but hold off on the open house for a few weeks.
In such cases, there's no need to wait for the official open house. Instead, have your agent reach out to the listing agent and set up a private viewing of the home.