On a sunny summer Sunday afternoon, while the rest of us are at a Rays game, or the beach, or grillin' and chillin' in the back yard, dozens of real estate agents all around Tampa Bay are sticking signs in front yards, setting out platters of cookies and spreading out information sheets on dining room tables.
It's the open house, that real estate ritual. Owners of a home for sale leave for the afternoon, the agent puts an "open house" sign out front and waits, hoping that the next person through the door will be an enthusiastic buyer.
Or at least the friend, neighbor or in-law of an enthusiastic buyer to whom they'll spread the word: "I just saw a house you're going to love."
"Open houses work for certain homes, not for others," says Frank Malowany, an agent with Smith & Associates in St. Petersburg. "An open house is the best venue for showing the house for what it is, giving it the best presentation."
Gary Ubaldini of Keller Williams in Clearwater puts it this way: "Right now selling homes is a price war and a beauty contest." The open house, therefore, is like the runway stroll at the Miss America Pageant: "There she is" — putting the beauty contestant out there and hoping for the best.
Look without pressure
"Other than Mother's Day, there hasn't been a Sunday I haven't had an open house," said Sandra Waterbury of Coldwell Banker Residential in St. Petersburg.
"Just getting someone in the door, in the house, is very important," she said. "People feel less threatened when you're open on a Sunday and they can just walk in. It's not like they're committed to an agent. They're in a relaxed mode, they're just browsing."
Agents say it's unlikely the eventual buyer of a home will wander in on an open house, though it does happen. It's more likely the agents will pick up a buyer for another listing. Or the lookers are sellers who are trying to unload their current homes before they can become buyers.
Often it's the neighbors (the curiosity factor is significant). Or it's people who are starting to think about putting their home on the market and want to know what the competition is, get some idea of what sells for what these days.
Waterbury has her open-house success story. It was the 10th open house on a home in the Old Northeast neighborhood of St. Petersburg. A man strolled in who had been there before with his wife. He spent 25 minutes examining the house, then called his wife on his cell phone. "Why did we not like this house?" he asked her.
She reminded him that they hadn't liked the kitchen. But Waterbury, who had become aware that the kitchen had its drawbacks, had "staged'' the home since the couple's first visit — rearranged, decorated and accessorized it — to minimize the kitchen's flaws.
Now, the husband fell in love with the place. "This house is gorgeous!" he said.
He had been intending to make an offer on a house down the street for $100,000 more. Instead, by 11 a.m. the next day, Waterbury had an offer, and, soon, a sale.
One marketing tool
Keith Gordon, of ADDvantage Real Estate Services in Holiday, doesn't think open houses are all that effective. "I don't think they attract buyers," he said. Instead, he believes, buyers are looking online at home listings to decide what they want to see. They're not just driving around looking for "Open House" signs, and they're working with buyer agents because they want that expertise.
Gordon's is a flat-fee company that posts listings on the MLS and negotiates deals, but he leaves open houses up to the sellers.
Open houses, he says, are another item in the tool kit, along with signs, postcards and other marketing techniques, "that attract somebody to see something."
But he thinks the major decisionmaker these days is price.
Speaking of price, don't expect the "open house" signs to go up outside the megamillion-dollar mansions, like the one Frank Malowany sold recently in Belleair Bluffs for $10.25-million.
In that stratospheric range, agents request a letter from the potential buyer's banker indicating that the buyer does, indeed, have the financial wherewithal before they'll take them on a tour. Such a home, Malowany said, "would not be a candidate for an open house."
"Open houses were invented during a time before the Internet, when consumers had to rely on Realtors, yard signs and newspaper ads," says Teresa Boardman, an agent in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of www.stpaulrealestateblog.com.
"Those days are gone, but the 'opens' live on. If buyers only toured homes that are open, they would be greatly limiting their opportunities," she wrote recently on the real estate Web site inman.com. "There are people who do attend open houses who are not buying. It is a hobby, something to do on a Sunday afternoon."
Better than a photo
Advertised open houses can work, agents say, when the photo that's posted on the MLS doesn't do a house justice. Or when a house is in an out-of-the-way place. Or when the house is hard for agents or buyers to see (the seller insists on being there for showings, or won't allow the agent to put a lockbox on a house). Or when the house has some unique feature — an extraordinary kitchen, for example, or an unusual pool — that really does have to be seen.
Nothing beats face-to-face interaction, agents say, with other agents or with the public.
Open houses can be an effective way for buyers who don't know where they want to live to get a feel for various neighborhoods. Faye Wharton, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential in Westchase, says, "I encourage my buyers to go see houses. It makes their search a lot more effective."
She visits open houses herself, she said, so she's familiar with what's on the market.
Many listing agents hold what's called a "broker open," usually around lunchtime during the week, when caravans of agents visit several open houses in the space of a few hours to see what's on the market. (Typically they're attracted by free food or drawings for items such as gasoline cards or restaurant gift certificates.)
Timing open houses
How many people do agents like to see before they call a Sunday afternoon open house a success? It could be only one, if that person wants to buy the house. Generally, though, 10 to 12 browsers are enough to call it a successful day, agents say.
"If no one shows up, it doesn't mean it was a failure," Gary Ubaldini says. "It means that no one was out in the marketplace shopping in this area at this time. That's not a reason to stop doing them."
Time waiting for potential buyers is time for agents to make calls and do paperwork.
Agents say they'll avoid open houses on days such as Easter or Mother's Day, and they know traffic may drop when there's competition from a major sports event or an activity such as Ribfest in St. Petersburg or Gasparilla in Tampa. (On the other hand, if hundreds of people are walking through a residential area to get to an event, some of them are bound to stop in at an open house, if only to get out of the heat.)
Bad weather keeps lookers at home.
Open houses are often a good place to get honest feedback, said Wharton, the agent from Westchase, from both agents and potential buyers. " 'You need to stage the house better' — that's a real common one," she said. "So is, 'The house is overpriced.' "
Judy Stark can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 893-8446.