Want to pick a fight in a roomful of real estate agents? Ask them whether they think open houses are worthwhile.

We did the virtual equivalent of that, sending out an online request for comments from real estate agents about the effectiveness of open houses — and they responded by filling up the old inbox faster than we could clean it out. Their responses range from passionate conviction that open houses are a must — to cynical observations that they’re of benefit to no one other than to agents who are trolling for new clients.

So, in a departure from our typical "five things you should know" feature for consumers, we’re doing a two-part look at the topic here. This week: Five reasons for homeowners to consider holding an open house. Coming up next week: Five reasons to forgo it.

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series.

Want to pick a fight in a roomful of real estate agents? Ask them whether they think open houses are worthwhile.

We did the virtual equivalent of that, sending out an online request for comments from real estate agents about the effectiveness of open houses — and they responded by filling up the old inbox faster than we could clean it out.

Their responses range from passionate conviction that open houses are "a must," to cynical observations that they’re of benefit to no one other than to agents who are trolling for new clients.

So, in a departure from our typical "five things you should know" feature for consumers, we’re doing a two-part look at the topic here. This week: five reasons for homeowners to consider holding an open house. Coming up next week: five reasons to forgo it.

Sellers, why should you throw the doors open and invite the world? According to many agents …

1. Sometimes, they get the job done.

Many agents who responded to our wholly unscientific survey said they’re up-front with homeowners about the statistical unlikelihood of actually snaring a buyer who walks in off the street.

"My sellers realize that the likelihood of a sale as a result of the open house is quite small, but (they’re) ever-hopeful that they will be the exception to the rule," said Pat Fales, associate broker at RE/MAX Allegiance in Burke, Va.

Melissa Hayes, an agent with RE/MAX Carriage House in Hermitage, Tenn., was one of a number of agents who shared their success stories.

"I have sold numerous properties by open house through one of two ways: Either the buyers return to their real estate agent and request a one-on-one appointment," Hayes said. "Or the buyer will submit an offer the day of the open house immediately after viewing the property."

Other agents said open houses can have a coattails effect.

"Many sellers say the only people who go through open houses are neighbors," said Jim Rhye, an agent with Kentwood City Properties in Denver. "I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. People, especially neighbors, talk. The more people that come through the house, the better."

2. Sometimes, home sellers just feel better for holding an "open," numerous agents said. Especially in a slow market, it amounts to a tangible effort.

"The seller thinks they work, so doing them despite how you may feel makes your client happy," said Bill Donovan, of South Suburban Homes in Centennial, Colo.

"I wouldn’t say we love (open houses)," said Wendy Hooper, an Altera Real Estate agent in Aliso Viejo, Calif. "But we do appreciate that they can have their place in the market — particularly in communities with older, more traditional residents. This is an ‘old school’ approach that they expect and can relate to." …CONTINUED

3. Even if an open house doesn’t produce a sale, it might provide valuable information for the sellers.

"Feedback can be a valuable resource when discussing strategy with your seller," said JoAnne DeBlis, an agent with Altera Real Estate in Monarch Beach, Calif. She said she prepares pre-addressed and stamped survey cards for prospective buyers so that they can comment on the condition of the house, price, etc. She uses their information to prepare a synopsis of every open house, she said.

4. The idea is not just to engage consumers, but other real estate agents, too.

Numerous agents cited the benefit of attracting consumers who stop by opens with their agents in tow, as those agents might see the house as attractive to their other clients and arrange showings.

And not all open houses are for the general public, the agents said.

"Owners should be briefed on the benefit of ‘broker opens,’ which are industry-specific open houses scheduled on regular ‘tour days’ in each area and advertised to brokers/agents," said Hooper. "Statistically, it is highly probable that another agent will sell the home, so getting as many of them inside as soon as possible is prudent."

5. So, what works best to create a successful open house?

Responses ranged from merely sticking the "open house" sign into the lawn to holding a pig roast, with plenty in-between.

"I make a point of knocking on doors of the neighborhood, either that day or the day before, inviting neighbors or to alert them to the possibility that maybe one of their friends or relatives might be interested in the home," said Betty Ladas, an agent with Crye-Leike Realtors in Hendersonville, Tenn. "It’s like a politician knocking on doors, asking for votes."

Other promotional "musts" cited by agents: directional signs on major streets to attract drivers; Web site, newspaper, social media and MLS announcements of the open; e-mail blasts; and postcards to neighbors.

Then there’s the food issue. Geena Becker, who says she isn’t particularly fond of opens, says nonetheless she likes to invite just a targeted list to the events at some properties.

"With my exceptional properties I will just have an open house with wine and cheese just for the neighbors," said Becker, an agent with William Raveis Real Estate in Avon, Conn. She says the narrow invitation list helps keep her focused on the mission.

"I find that neighbors want to talk and talk, and having the public combined with neighbors makes open houses quite stressful," she said. "Neighbors want to talk the neighborhood. Buyers want to ask specific questions on the property. I don’t want to hurry either conversation."

Some agents recommended the tried-and-true smell of baking cookies or even pies to mellow out the attendees. Many said some kind of treat should be offered because it breaks the ice and encourages them to stay longer — and people just like free food.

"So we hold BBQ open houses," said Kathleen McMullen of Exclusive Homes and Land in Scottsdale, Ariz. "We bring the smoker and smoke pork for small pulled-pork sandwiches. It’s a hit. People come from all over."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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