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What I Learned From Open Houses
I've been house hunting for over a year (and counting) and visited over a hundred open houses in that time. Let me be clear: I'm not some overly picky real estate window shopper, because I have made offers, and been outbid. In New York City, where I'm looking, that's just par for the course.
Still, though, my experiences have turned me into an open house aficionado of sorts. I know what makes buyers swoon (myself and others), as well as what repels buyers the moment they set foot inside.
So if you're a home seller who hopes to bowl over buyers rather than send them running, I'm here to help. Let me tell you about a few things I've learned that could kill your chances of selling your home.
Personal quirks on display
Steak sauce, mustard, and hot sauce. These condiments were not in the kitchen (as one would expect) but on a dresser in a bedroom of an open house I attended in Queens. Right then and there, I knew I had to get out of the house. Who knows what was going on there, but it was just too weird for me to stick around and ponder the possibilities.
“First impressions matter,” says Gary Malin, president of the New York brokerage firm Citi Habitats. “Remember, you want the prospective buyer's attention to be on the home, not your personal life.”
Remove all personal items, including family photos, unusual collectibles, memorabilia, and misplaced condiments.
Hovering home sellers (or their kids)
At an open house in Brooklyn, there was also a surprise in the bedroom: I walked in to find cute kids under the covers half-asleep. Granted, these kids weren't there alone; their parents were lingering, too. But adult supervision or not, all these family members nearby made me want to flee, because I felt like I was intruding on their personal space.
“Home sellers often make the mistake of leaving their place too late and returning too soon,” says Aaron Hendon, an agent for Christine & Company with Keller Williams in Seattle.
A well-advertised open house will attract people early, and there will definitely be people arriving just as the agent is locking up. So plan on getting everyone up and out of bed an hour before the open house starts.
Dark, dusty rooms
A three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo I checked out in the suburban county of Westchester was spacious, but very dark. The windows were covered not only by lace curtains, but also by valances and vertical blinds. It felt less like a home and more like the inside of a crypt. I tried to open the curtains to get a sense of what the room would look like with Vitamin D. But there were too many window coverings to remove, and I could manage to let in only one ray of sun. Then I gave up and got out.
“The aim is to get as much natural light as possible and then turn on every lamp,” says Ashley Baillio of the Keyes Company in Florida.
She also recommends dusting blinds. If you don’t, the light will catch the dust and make the whole house appear dirty.
Cluttered closets and drawers
Open houses are all about strangers opening and closing things—closet doors, kitchen cabinets and drawers. I recall one apartment I instantly loved and was ready to make an offer on—until I opened the kitchen pantry. There were products in there with packaging I recognized from my childhood ... at my grandmother's house. It was only then that I realized the house actually needed a ton of work and had not been updated at all since the 1980s.
Bottom line: Every detail of your house resonates with buyers. Yet Linda Bettencourt of Sotheby’s International Realty in San Francisco often gets pushback on this topic.
"Clients will say, 'People don’t care what my closet looks like!'" says Bettencourt.
But buyers do care, and all the details they glean help them form an opinion of your property
"Rather than remembering the beautiful skylight, they remember the medicine cabinet with a leaking bottle of Jean Naté body wash from 1983," she adds.
Lack of snacks
There’s something about a platter of baked goods that makes people like me go wild. Think cookies and small bottles of water. (You may want to skip baking the cookies yourself, which can make savvy buyers think you are trying to conceal funky odors.)
“Refreshments are a nice touch,” says Baillio. After all, going to an open house takes effort—sometimes I went to several a day. When an open house offered a little snack to greet visitors, I would be in a better frame of mind when testing the water pressure in the shower. Having no snacks is not necessarily a deal killer; but in general, I've noticed that the better open houses tend to have something to nosh on, perhaps because they were managed by people who paid attention to details.
At the last open house I went to a few weeks ago, the agent had visitors put on cloth booties to protect the floor. This is fairly standard procedure, but this house had steep, narrow stairs. Two potential buyers slipped on the staircase within 20 minutes. I pictured myself buying the house, only to fall to my death as I went downstairs for coffee. So as much as I liked the home, I didn't make an offer that day. My husband made me tour the home again, sans booties. And after discovering the stairs were safe if you didn't wear slippery booties, I fell in love and made an offer.
In this case, at least, I learned a lesson: First impressions can be deceptive. So if no one's swooning over your open house immediately, don't obsess about what you've done wrong. Sooner or later, the right buyer will come along.
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