Open Houses Are Great for Agents. This may be the single most misunderstood aspect of the real estate industry, and I'm not talking about the public who go to look at a home during a Saturday or Sunday open house. I'm talking about the agents who hold open houses. When I was on the road teaching real estate agents how to leverage technology to better service their clients and increase their business, I used to ask them, "What is the purpose of an Open House?" The answer was always the same: "To Sell The House!" they would exclaim. Then I would show them a clip from the movie American Beauty where Annette Bening's character tries to "sell" her listing to every prospect who crossed the threshold. Let's just say her efforts bordered on argumentation and her open house resulted in her mental breakdown instead of a sale. In my opinion, HOUSES SELL THEMSELVES. Most agents at Open Houses don't know that and they end up alienating people instead of meeting new prospects who may or may not (the majority of the time) like that particular house.
Great agents hold open houses to expose the home to more buyers (who may not already be working with another agent) but more importantly, to meet buyers who may not already be working with another agent! Great agents treat an open house as a speed dating event. If you're interested in the house, WONDERFUL, but if you are not, we try to, very quickly, offer you something else to look at or TRY TO SETUP AN APPOINTMENT TO DISCUSS FINDING ANOTHER HOME FOR YOU. The fact is that the first open house at any home is the one most likely to produce a buyer interested in THAT home. After that, it's simply a fishing expedition for the agent to find more buyers. I wish more agents were honest with their home sellers so they wouldn't have to kick them out of their house weekend after weekend looking for leads to sell other homes to.
Can you find the home of your dreams by simply waiting for open houses? The answer is yes, but not often. You'll be better off treating the open houses you go to as a speed dating experiment to find an agent you'd feel comfortable working with that can setup a direct MLS search for you (see Home Buying Tip #2), so you won't have to wait until Saturday or Sunday to see the new listings. Many of the hottest listings don't make it to an open house because agents setup private showings and may present an offer before the first weekend arrives.
There is a danger going to open houses without an agent. Most agents will force you to sign in on a guest register before you can enter a house. If you are working with an agent (but he or she can't be with you), you can hand the agent at the front door your agent's business card and ask to see the home without registering (it's always best to have your agent contact the agent holding the open house beforehand to ask permission for you to attend without him/her). Most agents appreciate that disclosure and will let you look around freely without hounding your for your contact information. But if you fall in love with the house and you don't have an agent, you may be talked into making the offer with the agent holding the open house, who is also likely the listing agent hired to represent the seller's interests, not yours. We have a disclosure for this situation which is called "Dual Agency". I used to write and teach courses on this topic. Dual Agency is in a word: TRICKY. Few agents have been trained to properly represent the interests of both the buyer and the seller equally and there is a financial incentive for an agent to try it in the form of a "double-dip," getting paid the commission for the seller and the buyer on the same transaction. Some attorneys compare it to the same lawyer representing the husband and wife in a bitter divorce (where both parties have diametrically opposed goals). It can work, but it takes a skilled agent to do it correctly.
In summary: Open houses are a great way to meet an agent. Go to a few of them, find an agent you like and then put them to work finding you a home instead of wasting your weekends looking at homes we couldn't sell more quickly! If you have an agent, make sure they alert the agent holding the open house that you are coming so you don't have to sign in and you won't have to have a stranger represent you in the purchase of that home if you do fall in love with it!