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Updated for the spring homebuying season - homebuyer mortgage assistance programs by state

First-time homebuyer's guide to open houses

There’s more that goes into buying a home for the first time besides shopping online for mortgage rates. To find the perfect home, you have to log off of the computer, get in your car and see homes for yourself. One way to do that is visiting open houses.

First-time homebuyers might naturally be reluctant to attend an open house held by a Realtor. After all, no one likes to be hassled by a pushy salesperson. But in fact, open houses can be a good opportunity.

As Ken Pozek, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Novi, Michigan, explains, "It's a cool idea."

Instead of calling around to find a real estate agent you like, you can go out on your own, see some of the homes that are for sale and meet the agents in person.

"You don't have to be nervous," Pozek says. "It can be fun. If there is a sign there, they want you to go in and they expect you to look around."

The best way to find out about open houses is to search real estate listing websites. You can also get this information from real estate websites, newspaper ads or by driving around your target neighborhood any weekend.

Sign in

Even though the house is open to the public, you'll still probably have to give the agent your name and contact information to be allowed inside, says Wendy English, sales manager at Century 21 Commonwealth in Medfield, Massachusetts.

"We have a responsibility to know who was in the house for the security of the seller's property," she explains.

A tip for homeowners

With prescription drug abuse on the rise, Realtors have reported that drug abusers are unfortunately posing as potential homebuyers and targeting open houses as sources of prescription medication. Homeowners are advised to collect their prescription medications in plastic bags and take it with them before their open house begins.

Some agents use a guest book or sheet of paper as a sign-in system. Others, such as Ed Finlan, managing broker at Keller Williams Western Realty in Burlington, Washington, use an electronic device.

"I have an open house app on my iPad," Finlan says. "People who are techie want to do it themselves. For the ones that aren't, I'll do it for them. They have to put in their name, email and phone number. That goes into our database, and the app will follow up for me, too."

Do's and don't's

An open house is "your time to look at the property," says Renee White, a broker associate at Keller Williams Realty East Bay in Walnut Creek, California.

That means it's fine to walk into all the rooms, open closets or even take a seat and stay a while if you're genuinely interested.

It's not okay to snoop.

"Sellers are advised to put away valuables and medications. You don't want to be opening their furnishings, wardrobe or drawers. Kitchen cabinets, closets -- it's expected that people will look there," English says.

Nor is it OK to let your children smear cookie on the walls or touch toys that belong to the seller's children.

That, English warns, "is a definite no-no."

If you want to take pictures, you should get permission from the agent first.

And don't block a neighbor's driveway when you park your car.

A super-busy open house "can get a little annoying for the neighbors," English says. "Those people could be your future neighbors, so you want to be respectful."

Sometimes houses that were scheduled to be open aren't, English adds. That happens because some houses sell quickly and the information posted online isn't always current.

If you're disappointed about a particular house, that might be a sign you're ready to commit to a Realtor so you'll be able to get the most up-to-date information, she suggests.

What to ask

A good agent should be knowledgeable about much more than the color of carpeting.

Here are some questions White suggests you should ask at an open house:

  • Have the sellers received any offers?
  • How well is this home priced?
  • What are the comps -- prices of similar homes recently sold in the area?
  • What are the schools?
  • Are there any disclosures?
  • What other for-sale homes should I see besides this one?
  • Who do you recommend for a lender?

Finlan says he gives buyers a hot sheet of more than a dozen bank-owned, newly built and resale homes for sale in the area along with information about the purchase process.

Motivated buyers

Agents hold open houses not only to market homes, but also to meet people who are ready, willing and well-qualified to buy, says Shantee Haynes, a Realtor at Berkshire Hathaway PenFed Realty in Washington, D.C.

"The agent tries to get to know people and figure out what their motivation is not just for being there, but whether they have the motivation to buy at all," she says.

If you're open to buying a house, a house that's open is a grand place to start.

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