Most home sellers dread open houses. It's not just that they've had to spend time making their home immaculate or that they've had to find a place to keep their dog. It's also the idea of a bunch of strangers trooping through their home, judging it, that leaves them cold.
Yet, no amount of pretty pictures on the internet can replace seeing a home in person.
Fifty-two percent of buyers use an open house, said John Smaby, president of the National Association of Realtors.
"They're part of the home-buying process, one tool in a broader marketing plan," he said.
The first steps to a successful open house are cleaning and decluttering.
"Make sure your home shines, because you're selling a dream," said Illia Schwarz, a real estate agent with Compass. "Repair, paint, get rid of stuff and clean. Opening your house to the public is stressful and expensive, but in most cases, making those aesthetic changes is worth it."
Naomi Hattaway, founder of 8th & Home, a real estate and relocation company in suburban Washington, D.C., has the following recommendations for sellers:
• Make your home smell nice. Put out fresh flowers. Don't try to mask bad smells with air freshener sprays.
• Take care of any minor repairs. Repair squeaky closet and bathroom doors. Fix a loose banister.
• Remove items that can be pocketed easily — jewelry, prescription medications, cellphones, tablets, figurines, memorabilia and treasured knickknacks.
• Hide the litter box, dog toys and pet food dishes.
Rebecca Weiner, a real estate agent with Compass, wants her sellers to act as if they are going on vacation. Don't leave dirty dishes in the sink or dishwasher. Empty the trash cans.
"I tell sellers, 'Pack a suitcase and go away. Leave the furniture, get rid of everything else,' " Weiner said.
Weiner also says to warn your neighbors in advance to expect extra cars around your house.
Some agents will pull fresh-baked cookies or a pie out of the oven before the open house to give the house a pleasant aroma. Others offer water, soda or coffee to prospective buyers. Most agents stay away from alcohol because of the liability concerns.
"I don't serve alcoholic beverages because they could affect people in an adverse way," said Ramona Greene, an agent with RLAH Real Estate. "I'm also careful about edibles because some people have allergies."
A few take marketing the house to a whole other level. One agent stationed a food truck outside, serving mimosas and a breakfast spread.
"It's not typical, but for the right property and neighborhood it could work," said Brian Sobotka, an agent with Long and Foster.
"A wilder idea is a broker striking a deal with a boutique shop that stocks exotic cars, like a $250,000 Lamborghini, and parking it out front to attract attention."
Most agents hold an open house the first weekend after the home is listed on the multiple listing service. They may hold an open house for brokers during the week and then one for the public on the weekend. They tend to avoid holiday weekends.
Larry Bivins, an agent with Long and Foster, schedules an open house the first two Saturdays and Sundays after the home goes on the market.
"Those are the ideal times for generating maximum traffic," he said.
His Saturday open houses usually run from 2 to 4 p.m., "because that gives people time to run errands and do weekend chores." His Sunday open houses usually are from 1 to 4 p.m., "because I want to catch churchgoing prospects who may not go back out if they return home."
The typical open house runs from 1 to 3 p.m. or 2 to 4 p.m.; but 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. is increasingly common, Sobotka said.
Weiner occasionally holds one on a Wednesday evening before the weekend open house "to give neighbors a sneak peek," she said.
Open houses aren't always necessary.
"If, as a result of pre-marketing, you've gotten the right offer and know for sure that you're going to accept it, you don't need to hold an open because the house is in fact sold," Sobotka said.
Expensive homes rarely have open houses.
"If the price point is over $2.5 million," said Schwartz, "you probably don't need to open your house to the public."
Houses that need a lot of work, such as a fixer-upper or one in the middle of a rehab, tend not to be good candidates for open houses.
"If the electrical systems and/or plumbing aren't up to par because a renovation is in progress it could be dangerous for people to walk around," Greene said.
But even houses in bad shape can benefit from an open house.
"Someone looking for a move-in-ready house won't walk in, but another set of buyers like investors or handyman-type people may find it attractive," Sobotka said.
Agents overwhelmingly agree that the neither the seller, nor their pets, should attend the open house.
"It makes buyers uncomfortable," Bivins said, "sort of like a retail salesperson following you around a department store."