While open houses are generally held throughout the year, the frequency with which they pop up increases dramatically in the spring. Real estate agents and sellers look to take advantage of people out and about enjoying the nicer weather, and this is the perfect time for you, as a potential homebuyer, to do the same.

An open house is a great introduction into the home buying process if you’re in the market to buy a home, and especially so if you’re buying your first home or searching in an area unfamiliar to you. Attending an open house can give you an inside look at not just a home for sale, but also the neighborhood it’s in and what general features you may or may not be looking for in a home.

An open house is a scheduled, dedicated time that sellers and/or their real estate agents will allow anybody and everybody to view their home for sale. Open houses are typically held on the weekends to maximize the number of potential visitors, and will generally be held for a few hours in the afternoon. Typical open houses may occur between noon and 4 PM on Saturdays or Sundays, for example.

You do not need to make an appointment in advance to attend an open house. You don’t need to bring your real estate agent, if you have one. You don’t need to have a pre-qualification letter from your mortgage company. You don’t even need to be ready to buy a home that day, or in the near future. You can just browse a list of open houses and walk right in the front door during the designated hours.

If you have already hired a real estate agent to help you in your home search, he or she could help prepare you for what to look for, and where to look, if you’re planning on attending open houses. A lot of potential buyers will attend open houses without their agents, though, and many will hire an agent after they’ve already visited a number of open houses.

If you haven’t hired a real estate agent yet, or if you don’t plan on doing so, here is a guide that will help you get the most out of your open house experience, preparing you for what to look for, how to dress, and how to act at an open house.

Plan an Open House Day

The great thing about open houses for you as a buyer is you don’t need an appointment or any pre-qualifications to attend. You can just see an open house is being held and walk right in to browse the home.

One of the best ways you can use open houses to your advantage is to plan an entire “open house day,” where you attend multiple open houses in succession. This will allow you to maximize your time, experience a broad range of houses and neighborhoods, and allow you to compare these first-hand experiences to each other while they’re fresh in your mind.

With the power of the internet, it’s easy to find a plethora of open houses in your desired area on any given day. You can use popular real estate websites such as Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, and Realtor.com to search for only homes that are hosting open houses on a day of your choosing, in an area of your choosing and with specs and prices of your choosing.

While you may have a specific style of home or price range in mind, you should use open houses to expand your search. Don’t just look for open houses that fit your requirements. Attend open houses in neighborhoods you are considering, even if the home itself doesn’t appeal to you at first glance. Attending the open house will give you a feel for the neighborhood. Also, stretch your search beyond what you think you can afford. This will give you an idea of what your money can buy, and whether you might want to stretch your budget.

Start this pre-planning search by finding five to 10 properties that are hosting open houses in a few neighborhoods you are considering. Then, optimize your open house day by planning the best route according to location, time, and distance.

To maximize the number of open houses you can hit, try to start at an open house that begins at noon, and try to end at an open house that ends at 4 p.m. Show up to that first home at noon on the dot, and try to not show up to that last home later than 3:30, so you have some time to browse the home without being rushed out the door.

Ideally, you’ll want to aim for at least one open house per hour, giving you four potential homes to browse. Depending on the distance between each, and how long you spend in each home, you may be able to squeeze in an extra one here or there. Plan your day with the four can’t-miss homes (one for each hour) and then have backup options already set in case time permits.

Proper Open House Etiquette

Now that you have planned out your day, it’s important to understand the proper etiquette for buyers attending open houses. While you technically don’t have to be in the market to attend an open house, you don’t want to waste the seller’s time, either. If you’re attending open houses, you should be respectful enough to at least be in the market to buy a home in the near future.

You are the potential customer, so the real estate agent and/or sellers at the open house will be trying to woo you. This doesn’t mean you should walk into homes looking like you just rolled out of bed, though. There is no need to dress in formal attire as if you were selling the home, but you should look like respectable buyers. Keep in mind that if you decide to put an offer on a home you visit, the agent and/or sellers will have a picture in their head of how you presented yourself at the open house.

If there are multiple identical offers on the property (which happens quite often), the sellers might choose someone else over you based simply on their first impression of you and their vision of how you might treat their home. As such, dress in casual wear that is both clean and comfortable.

When you enter the home, the sellers or their agent should greet you upon your arrival. Be polite to them, and definitely ping them for more information (more on this in a bit). Before you browse the home on your own, ask the sellers or agent whether it is OK for you to take photos of the home (which you can use to compare the homes later) and also ask if it is OK to open doors or drawers that may be closed.

Like your mother told you time and again, treat the home as you would like others to treat yours.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Agents

The real estate agent or sellers will welcome you when you enter the open house. They should have some printed materials for you about the home and may offer you some refreshments. After that, they will let you browse the home unattended and station themselves in a central area of the home.

Take the printed materials and take notes as you walk through the house. This way, when you review all the houses you visited later, you’ll have an easy reference to remember which house was which.

This is your opportunity to get some more information about the home you can’t find by simply browsing the rooms or searching online. Don’t be afraid of the agents or the sellers. Inquire for more information about the home and neighborhood.

Some questions you might ask include:

  • Are there hardwood floors under any carpeting (in case you want to rip them up)?
  • Why are the sellers moving? Are they motivated to sell?
  • How long has the property been on the market? Why?
  • What are the details and costs of the utilities?
  • Are there other offers on the home?
  • Do the appliances come with the home? How old are they?
  • Is there any known asbestos in flooring, siding, or insulation?

These questions will help you get some more inside information on the home and the sellers for possible future negotiations. The agent and/or sellers may ask you some questions as well. Don’t be afraid to share some information about yourself and your status in the home buying journey, but don’t share too much.

If the sellers have a real estate agent at the open house, share with him or her what you’re looking for in a home. If the one you’re in doesn’t meet your needs well, chances are the agent might be able to direct you to more listings he or she has at a later time.

Focus on the Property by Looking Beyond All the “Stuff”

When you attend open houses, you will have the freedom to browse the homes on your own. This is nice because it allows you and your family to talk privately about each aspect of the home as you walk through. But since you’ll be going it alone, you want to know what to look for.

The most important thing when you’re attending open houses is to focus on the home and the property and not the things in them. Ignore the couches, the decorations, the curtains, the furniture, and even the paint on the walls. That can all be changed and/or removed. Instead, focus on the basic specs of the home, such as:

  • The overall square footage, and whether that counts the basement and garage (if it has either)
  • The number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the size of them
  • Other rooms and features
  • The “flow” of the home from room to room
  • The opportunity for expansion and/or renovation

You want to be able to envision yourself in the home. While the agent and/or sellers might have staged the home in a way they think would show best to the broadest number of potential buyers, try to ignore the furniture and the way it’s laid out, and picture how you would set up a room.

For example: Would you keep that fourth bedroom a bedroom? Or would you use it as an office? Thinking about the home in this way will allow you to get a better sense of what you could make it, and not what it is right now.

In addition, you should be looking for the not-so-obvious things that could be cause for concern. Go into the attic and look up at the roof for wet spots that could be signs of a leak. Look at the basement floor and walls for signs of water stains that might tell you it leaks. Look outside at the home, too, especially for potential issues with dead trees or branches that are hanging over the house.

While you can certainly schedule a private showing after the open house to investigate further — and while you should have the opportunity to perform a detailed inspection if you make an offer and it were accepted — this will get you into the practice of knowing what to look for. So, even if you don’t move forward with a home you visit on open house day, it’ll get you experience in spotting the hard-to-see potential issues.

Follow Up If You Like a Home

When you are leaving each open house, thank the real estate agent or sellers for welcoming you into the home. If you haven’t already, make sure to take the printed materials with you, and if you feel you may be interested in the home, take the agent’s business card as well.

Once you have visited all the open houses for the day, sit down with you and your family and review what you saw, what you liked, and what you didn’t like. If you are interested in pursuing one of the homes you visited further, you’ll want to jump on it right away. Follow-up with the agent to schedule a private showing so you can take your home buying process to the next step.

Keep in mind you were one of many people who visited the open house that day, so acting fast if you really liked one of the homes is in your best interest. It is likely that other buyers may be doing the same thing.

If none of the homes you visited on open house day suit you and your family, that’s OK. Don’t get discouraged. If nothing else, your tour should have given you a glimpse into neighborhoods you want to keep on your list or neighborhoods you want to eliminate from your search. In addition, you also should have gotten a sense for the type of home you want — both in terms of the layout and the size — that should serve you well as your search continues.

Since spring is almost here, take comfort in knowing there will be many opportunities to schedule multiple “open house days” that you can use as information-gathering sessions in your home search. Follow this guide for how to get the most out of the open house experience, stay patient, and you’ll find the home that fits you best in no time.