Going back about three decades when my wife and I were looking to buy a home in Mesa, Ariz., our real estate agent often took us to open houses. We never bought any of those properties, instead acquiring a house the agent found through the local listing service.
Back then, it was fairly common to drive through neighborhoods and see signs for other open houses. Then as the years went by, it became less and less common to see those same signs. I never thought much about it since my wife and I haven’t been in the market for a new home, preferring to stay in the house we found all those years ago.
Then recently I came across a study on open houses by Tim Ellis, a researcher at online real estate brokerage Redfin.
Ellis’ report on the efficacy of open houses surveyed 10 cities and much to his surprise — and mine! – it came to the conclusion that the prevalence and effectiveness of open houses to sell residential real estate was an extremely local phenomenon. It was popular methodology in some cities, but a forgotten tactic in others.
When I read in Ellis’ report that the two cities where open houses were almost nonexistent were Las Vegas and Phoenix, I realized it had been years since I saw an open house anywhere in Mesa, which has a population of almost 500,000.
Coincidentally, just a few weeks back I had been researching the San Francisco residential market, which has been red hot of late (as is the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metro), and press stories exclaimed open houses in that city were like feeding frenzies.
Of the cities, Ellis surveyed, San Francisco agents were the most ardent holders of open houses anywhere in the country.
"Apparently, every weekend is open-house weekend in San Francisco," Ellis wrote.
In regard to the percentage of sellers holding an open house, this is the way the numbers broke out in Ellis’ report: San Francisco, 83 percent; Boston, 63 percent; Seattle, 53 percent; Washington, D.C./Fairfax County, Va., 44 percent; Queens, N.Y. (a borough of New York City), 41 percent; Portland, Ore., 32 percent; Chicago, 22 percent; Austin, 21 percent; Phoenix, 5 percent; and Las Vegas, 3 percent.
As can be seen from the data points above, the discrepancy between cities where open houses are popular and where they are not is so wide that it is more like comparing customs in different countries.
I decided to give Ellis a call.
Like me, Ellis admits, "I didn’t realize how much variation there was from market to market, nor how common open houses were in some markets. I live in Seattle and only about half the homes that come to market have an open house."
Well, what about the outliers, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas on one end and San Francisco on the other?
Part of the reason for the low presence of open houses in a place like Phoenix is that the market is so liquid at the moment, Ellis said. "There is so much sales going on in Phoenix right now, it blows every other market out of the water."
Indeed, in Phoenix, and to a slightly lesser extent in Las Vegas, where the housing market blew up royally during the Great Recession, busted properties that were bank-owned are now selling so cheaply that they are being gobbled up by just about anyone with a spare $10. Investor groups have come in and bought thousands of properties for portfolios; Canadians are buying anything that has four walls; and whatever is left has been purchased by people who have a steady job and cash in the bank. There’s no need for an open house.
The recovery from the Great Recession only accelerated a trend line I had noticed going on for a couple of decades in the Phoenix metro.
As for San Francisco, Ellis said the percentage was so high he thought his numbers were wrong.
"I checked in with some San Francisco agents, asking how frequently do they have an open house, and the responses were nine out of 10 times," Ellis told me. "I was surprised, but it’s just a market-by-market thing. In San Francisco, it’s the norm; if you put a listing on the market, you have an open house."
In San Francisco, Ellis concluded, if you don’t have an open house, that may be an indication that there are other challenges to selling the property. Conversely, in Las Vegas and Phoenix, if you do have an open house, that may be a sign of problems with the listing.
The ramifications of these percentage breakdowns get even stranger in the outlier cities as Ellis poked into the effectiveness of an open house as a selling tool. To define success, Ellis used the data point of 90 days after listing to see if a house sold.
"In most markets, there were small differences in percentages," he said. "In most markets, 39 percent of homes sold after 90 days regardless of whether there was an open house or not. The exceptions were the homes in the cities at the ends of the spectrum.
"In San Francisco, if you didn’t hold an open house, you were a good 7 percent or 8 percent percentage points less likely to have sold your home in less than 90 days. In Las Vegas and Phoenix, if you held an open house you were actually less likely to have sold the home before 90 days."
Looking at all the markets in Ellis’ survey, if there was no open house, 42.5 percent of listings sold within 90 days; if an open house was held in week one, 55.5 percent of listings sold within 90 days; if an open house was held after week one, only 29.4 percent sold within 90 days.
Just out of curiosity, I sent a note about open houses to an associate in Honolulu, far, far away from Ellis’ survey cities.
Ross Brown, an associate broker with Keller Williams Realty, replied with these comments: "Open houses are one of the best ways to interact with people in Hawaii. Sometimes the public will not know a home is on the market unless an open house was held. An open house alerts the neighborhood that the home is actively on the market. We meet people face to face at an open house, and this is always our main goal in real estate. Seeing a home online is a good start but there is no substitute for actually being inside the home."