As a kid, party crashing was considered the exclusive province of bad boys — and girls. As I got a little older, the film "Wedding Crashers" gave all those party-crashers a grown-up outlet.

Now, as a newly devoted runner, I recently became aware of the race-crashing phenomenon, in which runners don’t pay or register, but do run the course for various reasons: ethical (historically, women crashed races in which they were not allowed to register due to gender discrimination) and otherwise (some race crashers use a portion of one race to train for another, without thinking of the resources they divert from paying runners).

After reading the confession of a race-crasher in a running magazine last weekend, I wondered if there was a real estate version of this party/wedding/race-crashing phenomenon, and almost smacked my forehead with the obviousness of the answer to that question: open-house crashing!

As I see it, there are a couple of flavors of behavior that could be counted as open-house crashing. If the definition of crashing is for someone to attend and participate in an event other than its intended participants, then under the strictest construction of what open houses are for, you could call anyone other than people who are currently in the market to buy a home — and are qualified to purchase a home in the price range of the home being held open — an open-house crasher.

I don’t think I’m exposing industry secrets when I say that this definition would render the majority of open-house visitors "crashers," if you account for the looky-loo neighbors, voyeurs seeking decor inspiration for their own homes and prospective home sellers scoping out the competition.

But this definition of an open house’s purpose is, in my humble opinion, overly tight. Fact is, most agents hold their listings open knowing full well that most attendees will not be ready, qualified buyers. Many hold them open to allow for the statistical improbability that the right buyer for that property will actually walk through the door (stranger things have happened!), but also holding the specific intention of meeting buyer and seller clients.

So, I’d say people who are even thinking of buying or selling in the near future are probably not technically crashers, and should certainly feel no qualms whatsoever about visiting open houses (in fact, no one really should, so long as they refrain from actively lying about their intentions while they’re there).

Scratch that — I’m going to go even further and say that if you’re planning on selling a home anytime in the near future, it’s actually your responsibility to get informed about the competition your home will face, as well as to familiarize yourself with the market as thoroughly as possible.

To this end, I suggest every seller-to-be engage in some intensive, intentional open-house crashing, making sure they execute on the following intel-collecting tasks in the process:

1. Collect intel regarding traffic. Head to the buyers’ and brokers’ open houses for similar homes and see what traffic looks like: Are they well-attended? Do the buyers look serious or are they all the same faces you see at the neighborhood block party? What differences in marketing, staging, agents and such do you see between the events that get good traffic and those that flop?

2. Look at condition. What condition are competing homes in? When you’ve lived in a place for a while, it’s super-easy to do a normal spring-style cleaning and think that the place is in tip-top shape — until you see what a freshly painted, fully staged home looks like, that is.

Ideally, hit some open houses listed by the highest-end agent in the area (who is likely to pull out all the stops on staging in order to keep up her track record of selling homes for over the asking price) and some short sales and foreclosures to get a sense for where you want your home to fall on the condition and property preparation spectrum. Make sure to look inside and out, and listen to the overall impression the open house’s condition is creating in terms of other visitors’ vocal reactions.

3. Talk with the agent. Don’t interrupt if the agent is talking terms with a "real" buyer, but when he’s free, introduce yourself and engage him in a conversation about the property, its preparation and pricing and even your future plans for listing and selling yours. It’s not at all bizarre for sellers to find the agent they want to list their home having vetted him, in part, based on his work at an open house.

4. Look at the marketing materials. While you’re there, note how the open house was marketed, grab a flier and even hold onto marketing materials you particularly like (i.e., postcards, fliers, etc.). This may also inform your listing agent selection or help you communicate what you want to another agent. Visit the online listings for the open houses on Trulia and other national listing sites, as well as the local newspaper or agent sites you find the listing on. If there is a microsite listed on the fliers (usually a Web address with the address of the home in it), definitely go there as well. You may collect some smart strategies from your comparison of your in-person impressions of the home against what you see in the property’s marketing materials.

5. Listen to buyer questions. What are the questions and concerns you hear lobbied by prospective homebuyers in your area? Which homes do they seem to think are overpriced, and which ones do they ask about submitting offers on? Do you hear any themes, in terms of location concerns or questions about the commercial development across the road? Open-house crashing can give you a free glimpse into the minds of the prospective buyers for your home, as well, allowing you to tailor your marketing, property preparation and pricing for maximum impact.

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