Cover Story: Keeping Things Open

by Chicago Agent

In today’s tumultuous economy, the debate between having an open house and leaving it up to the Internet is going strong. Some feel that having an open house is the best way to get potential buyers in the door, while others insist the Internet has completely replaced this old-fashioned experience. Regardless, by emphasizing the basics, sprinkling in a little innovation and focusing on the invaluable benefits of networking and personal interaction, many agents explain how the open house is still important in the Internet age.

By Peter Ricci

During the housing boom from 1995 to 2006, the open house became less and less relevant for a successful real estate career. The housing market was flying high, riding a wave of low interest rates and loosening regulation. Companies were reporting record profits, and homes seemed to sell before agents had the time to list them. In a 2000 study, the National Association of Realtors found that only 28 percent of homebuyers still used the open house.

Now that we are facing a more difficult housing market, Realtors must use extra effort when selling their properties, resulting in open houses once again becoming a viable real estate strategy. A 2008 NAR survey found that 59 percent of sellers are using open houses, an astounding 41 percent increase over the 8 percent recorded in 2005. Despite these increased numbers, there are still plenty of Realtors that don’t see the point in these open houses, especially when most of the information can be found on the Internet.

Mixed Bag

Though current statistics show an upward trend for open houses, real estate experts report that they are both successful and frustrating.

Caryl Fancher and Teri Pytel, real estate agents who work together at RE/MAX Unlimited Northwest in Lake Zurich, say that while they were “gung ho” about open houses at the start of their careers, after 20 years in the industry they mainly use whichever approach the seller prefers, knowing they have other strategies to sell a home other than the open house. Pytel also says she is not surprised at how open houses have heated up as the housing market has cooled. “For a declining market, you have to step up all your marketing,” Pytel says, adding that strategies that may not have been essential in a hot market are now useful. “Now, you’re doing everything and you’re doing it twice.”

Joni Lindgren, a Realtor with Century 21 Kanute Real Estate in St. Charles, fully believes in the importance of the open house, and normally hosts at least one a week. In fact, Lindgren reports that she has been committed to public showings since her real estate career began five years ago. “I know there are a lot of Realtors that don’t like open houses and they don’t do them, but I do because I’ve sold houses that way,” Lindgren says, emphasizing in particular the word-of-mouth exposure the open house can generate for a property.

Christine Howe, a relatively new Realtor (she became certified two and one-half years ago) with Realty Executives Midwest Darian, admits that while open houses can be a fun, useful tool in meeting a wide number of potential buyers, it is ultimately a hit-or-miss activity. “My last open house I think had 12 people in, which was beautiful,” Howe says, admitting that the previous showing did not have as many visitors in attendance.

Back to Basics 
Across the board, agents agree on the importance of the basic, technical necessities of any open house: proper signage, clean presentation and neighborhood outreach.

The open house has been a staple of Deborah Hess’ real estate career since its inception 20 years ago. Now, the technologically adventurous agent with Conlon: A Real Estate Company follows a simple strategy she calls “back to basics.” “Signage,” Hess says, “is critical,” and points out that it is the essential first step for any successful showing. Hess says she always places five to seven signs in strategic, traffic-heavy places at least one hour before her events begin.

Fancher and Pytel also stress the basic technical details in hosting open houses. “The number one thing is the house has to be in mint condition,” Fancher says, noting how “everything must be staged” and “super clean.” Like Hess, Fancher emphasizes signage, particularly directional signs on every street corner to lead homebuyers to the showing. The occasional cookies and cake provided adds comfort to the home’s environment, and Fancher stresses that Sundays are her protocol day for hostings, as homebuyers generally expect them to be on that day.

Another necessity, noted by both Fancher and Lindgren, is different forms of neighborhood outreach. Fancher focuses on notifying the home seller’s neighbors of her open houses, as that demographic always provides great word-of-mouth to other prospective buyers. Lindgren keeps a back-pocket collection of “just in case” for-sale homes in the surrounding areas if homebuyers are not interested in the home being shown. Sometimes, this has helped Lindgren land new clients.

When Hess finds herself in these situations, she calls local real estate agents who are based near her open houses to generate homebuyer speculation.

Beyond the Basics
While there is an established set of requirements Realtors agree on in order to have a successful open house, some agents are stepping beyond the basic threshold to offer homebuyers a new, modern twist on the typical event.

Hess, for instance, has begun using special promotions at her events to generate more visitors. At a recent showing, she included an iPod drawing for viewers who completed the full open house register. At first, Hess says, the visitors would merely walk into the house, write their name on the register and attempt to turn it in. All it took was a little prompting from Hess that if viewers completed the entire register, they’d then have a chance to win the iPod. One particular visitor immediately walked through the house and completely filled out his form, thus leaving Hess with full contact information for a potential new client.

“It works,” Hess says, referring to the incentive such promotions provide for viewers to see the featured property.

In contrast, Howe attempts to work off of the various feelings and emotions of her potential buyers, creating what she calls an “urgency” in her open houses that lends a greater level of competition at the hostings. At her most recent event, Howe says that the presence of 12 people — and the fact that she was discussing the many features of the house with two viewers — created that “urgency.” The remaining 10 viewers walking around were left to worry that at any given moment the home they were touring could be sold.

Both Hess and Howe have found the Internet to be helpful in terms of increasing traffic to their open houses. Hess uses a personal blog to inform her readers of showings, but with certain stipulations. Rather than simply listing the date and place of the open house, which would amount to using the blog as a rudimentary “sales vehicle,” Hess says she focuses on unique features of the properties and emphasizes any “special twists” the homes have to lure in homebuyers.

On one recent blog entry about a two-flat, rather than describing the cold, boring features of the building, Hess opted to describe the property as an alternative to a college dorm, a suggestion that created a new, interesting take on the listing and in the end brought in more viewers.

Howe plans to divide her different listings and events across three new Web sites she recently launched. “The Internet is a beautiful place to prospective buyers and sellers because everyone is on there,” Howe said, also commenting that she sees a focused, solid campaign for an open house as one of the most valuable components to a showing’s success. So valuable, in fact, that it can even compensate for ill-appearing properties and more difficult-selling regions in both the city and suburbs.

Personal Networking Touch

Since the advent of the Internet in the late 1990s, real estate has gradually become a more technologically based trade; thus, debate has been sparked as to what aspects of the industry the Internet will replace. In 1995, 2 percent of homebuyers used the Internet in their home searches, while according to the 2008 NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, that number has climbed to 87 percent. However, while ubiquitous online listings may feature photos and even virtual tours, Web sites cannot duplicate the most important advantages of the open house: the ability to create the feeling of actually living in the home; the opportunity to provide detailed, spontaneous information to homebuyers in a face-to-face environment; and the implicit benefit of networking and clientele.

“The Internet will give a picture of the house, a virtual tour,” Pytel says. “They’ll know what the condition is, what it looks like, they’ll get a feel. But there’s nothing like actually walking through a house to know if it’s going to meet your criteria. Pictures can only do so much.”

Howe agrees: “The Internet is beautiful and I absolutely love it, but sometimes people are still looking for that one-on-one, personal touch, and you don’t necessarily always get that with the Internet,” Howe says. “People still like people. They don’t want to be pressured, but they like to be able to get questions answered at an open house. They can see the property, they can ask you about other properties [and] you can help them move forward.”

For Lindgren, homebuyer questions provide the most compelling reason to host open houses. “If I’m standing there at the open house then I can give them information that’s not on the listing sheet,” she says. “And if they have questions about the community, you can answer those; those answers are not on the MLS sheet.”

In addition to greater detail, the personal aspect of the open house allows for networking and building of clientele bases. Hess says that she created the foundation of her real estate career with her first open house, a 1991 showing, while pregnant with her youngest daughter. “Today, some of my best clients came out of that open house. I still stay in touch with them,” Hess says. “If you do it correctly, open houses force you to really promote the property outside of the broker community and to the public. If you’re effective, and you know how to work with people once they visit the open house and establish rapport and do good follow up, it is a very serious way to get a buyer base of clients.”

And this personal touch — mixed with her own empirical evidence — leads Hess to believe the open house will remain an effective real estate strategy, even when the markets recover. “I launched my career with open houses,” she says. “I’ll go on a listing appointment and sellers will say, ‘Well the other Realtors that we talk to say open houses are ineffective,’ and that has never been my view. I don’t think that as long as I am in the business that it ever will be.” C.A.

Caryl Fancher 
Realtor – RE/MAX Unlimited Northwest
Lake Zurich 

Deborah Hess
Realtor – Conlon: A Real Estate Company

Christine Howe
Realtor – Realty Executives Midwest

Joni Lindgren
Realtor – Century 21 Kanute Real Estate 
St. Charles

Teri Pytel
Realtor – RE/MAX Unlimited Northwest
Lake Zurich 

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