A Buyer's Guide to Open House Etiquette

Master the dos and don'ts of house hunting

Homebuyers get away with a lot of things these days. Lowball offers. Closing cost credits. Tax credits.

But just because you're in a hot buyer's market doesn't mean you should waltz into every open house and demand things. (Though you might get them if the seller is motivated enough.)

Restrain yourself and stick to these rules of open house etiquette to ensure a pleasant house hunting experience:

Have a game plan. If you're giving up an hour on a Sunday, you might as well set aside the entire afternoon. Research properties you want to see and schedule your day so you hit up open houses in one area, move on to the next area and so on. Allow yourself enough time to see each home and travel to the next one.

Wear a comfortable but appropriate outfit. It's not a fashion show so leave the Armani suit and Jimmy Choos at home. That said, a tank top and Daisy Dukes are inappropriate. Keep it reasonable. Plus, you're going to do a lot of walking through rooms and up and down stairs so wear comfortable clothes and shoes.

Be polite to the host. Even if you dread dealing with real estate agents, don't give the agent hosting the open house the cold shoulder. Smile and greet them. Sign in. If the agent seems pushy or is trying to solicit your business, kindly tell him you already have an agent. Thank him when you leave.

Focus on the property. This isn't social hour, so after you've greeted the host, get down to business. Prepared sellers will hand out a property description sheet with information like square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms and special features. Use it to take notes and check off things as you walk through the house. If square footage is important to you, bring a tape measure. 

Ask before you take pictures or record video. Remember, in many cases, the home is still someone's private residence so before you snap a photo or pull out the camcorder, ask permission.

Feel before you sit. Some homes for sale are empty and staged with fake furniture, such as airbeds and cardboard box couches. So make sure you check it's real before plopping on the sofa.

Look in -- not rummage through -- closets, drawers and cupboards. Make sure there's enough storage space in the home, but don't go through someone else's private belongings. Check the width and depth of the closets, kitchen and bathroom drawers, cupboards and cabinets. And while you're at it, see if anything is broken or squeaks.

Hold the criticism til after you leave. Like you learned in kindergarten, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Again, the seller still calls the place home, so don't badmouth it during the tour. Who knows who may be listening -- the seller, a neighbor, a friend? If you end up in a multiple offer situation where price and terms are similar, you don't want the seller choosing the other buyer because he heard you criticizing his home.

Avoid TMI (too much information). Meaning YOU divulging details about your situation, such as how your home search is going and when you need to move. While there's nothing wrong with a little chit-chat, keep the conversation focused on the property. And use your best poker face. Even if you've walked into your ultimate dream home, don't show any emotion.

Remember, the agent works for the seller so you don't want to share any information that could compromise your bargaining position. Think Miranda rights -- anything you say can and will be used against you in a potential negotiation.

Ask probing questions, politely. It's okay to ask about the seller's motivation and if there are any offers. Find out if there are special assessments or other fees. And it doesn't hurt to get the agent's insight on the neighborhood and nearby schools.

Sometimes the open house agent is filling in for the actual listing agent and won't know anything about the property, or he/she can't answer certain questions (like those that fall under fair housing laws). It can be frustrating, but keep cool and ask where you can get the information.

Listen to other buyers. They may be your competition, but they may know something you don't about the property or neighborhood, such as the barking dog next door. Listen to other guests' reactions to the home and engage in polite conversation. You don't have to divulge details of your own search, but you never know what someone else might say.


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