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Making the most of an open house

In ancient times, such as back when I bought my house, people drove around looking at "For Sale" signs to pick out potential purchases, and then they phoned the listing agent to arrange for a visit. This, of course, left them in the hands of someone with the most to gain from a sale.

If they had an agent of their own to help with what would likely be the largest purchase they'd ever make, they would browse listings and set up appointments. When those tours happened, they'd look under the sink, behind the furnace and under the broadloom to see what secrets the sellers would rather keep to themselves.

Contrast this with the weekend just past. In my neighourhood, recently touted as one of Toronto's up and comers by a national newspaper, you could hardly turn onto your street for all the sandwich boards advertising "Open House from 2 to 4." Cars lined the curbs while house-hunters descended like a swarm of bees looking for that elusive prize: their dream house.

Are you likely to find a house to call home this way? Not if you listen to seasoned real estate agents in Toronto and Calgary, two of the country's hottest markets.

The real target audience
"Statistics have shown that sales directly from open houses are as low as 3 per cent," reveals Glenda Sumner, an agent for more than 20 years with Prudential Properties in Toronto's east end. "When I do an open house (for a seller), I'm not necessarily looking for a buyer. It's a way to gauge the response to whether the price is good. And for a lot of agents, it's a way to gain clients."

That's absolutely who open houses are for, says award-winning Calgary Realtor Kirby Cox. "More often than not, they're for the agent's own benefit." And while Cox will offer an open house for a client who insists on it, "I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of homes I've sold from open houses." This after 23 years in the business, the last seven as Royal LePage's No. 1 Alberta agent.

Cox and Sumner both say open houses are full of what they call "lookey-loos" -- nosy neighbours, people looking for decorating ideas and weekenders with little else on their recreational agendas.

Take your time
Toronto massage therapist Angela Small (we have changed her name because of ongoing litigation regarding her house) doesn't fit any of those categories. She and her schoolteacher husband are about to embark on their third house purchase, the last one less than two years ago. That house, despite its total renovation, turned out to have some problems that cost the couple time and money and, in the case of a dispute with neighbours over access to their back lane parking, a good deal of aggravation.

"When I go through a house this time," says Small, "I'm going to spend a lot more time. It can be hard not to fall in love with nice decorating," she admits. And also "it can feel awkward at a public open house to look behind cupboards, etc." After feeling disappointed at what they thought was their dream home, Small will be looking "very closely" this time around.

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-- Posted: May 07, 2007
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