The current housing market is on fire, and sellers are earning top dollar for their homes. Buyers, though, are feeling the crunch. Many struggle to find the perfect home amid high demand and low inventory. In fact, a measly 860,000 homes were on the market at the end of 2021, a new all-time low, according to the National Association of Realtors.

This competitive market can be stressful for buyers. If you’re planning to attend an open house, you’ll want to be super-prepared, so you can make a quick offer if you like the place — and avoid panic-buying.

How to attend an open house as a homebuyer

What do you need to bring to an open house? What should you look for while you’re there, and what questions should you ask? This guide will help you plan ahead to make the most of your visit.

What to bring (and what not to)

First things first: Dress comfortably for an open house, and wear walking shoes — there could be some wandering and stair climbing involved. Bring a notebook and tape measure to take specific measurements, if needed, and don’t forget to tuck a mask in your bag. Although mask mandates have been lifted in most states, COVID restrictions are still in place in some areas.

If you’re already preapproved for a mortgage, you might consider bringing your documentation along to show that you’re a serious buyer. But it’s not really necessary. “You’re not required to bring your preapproval letter to the open house, since you probably won’t submit an offer on site,” says Peggie McQueen, a Realtor with Dalton Wade Real Estate Group in St. Petersburg, Florida.

A couple of etiquette tips: Leave any pets or rambunctious little ones at home. Do sign in when you arrive, even if you’re already working with an agent — it’s OK to let the seller’s agent know that if they inquire. And if you want to snap a few photos while walking through the home, be sure to ask first.

What to look for

Don’t let fancy staging or tasty treats sidetrack you from your goal. You want to look beyond the home’s surface appearance to determine if it will be a good investment, and a good match for your needs.

Take a lot of notes, jotting down anything that strikes you, whether positively or negatively. Homes can start to blend together when you’re looking at a lot of them, and you want to make sure you remember what made this particular place stand out to you.

If you work from home or have hobbies that require dedicated space, be sure to look for areas that can accommodate them. You don’t want to move in only to realize there’s nowhere to put your desk or set up a crafting table, or no room in the kitchen for all your baking supplies.

What to ask about

If you have any pressing questions about the property, now’s the time to ask. For instance, you may want to know more about schools in the area or nearby parks and recreational facilities.

“Ask why the homeowner is selling the home,” suggests Jennifer Green, a Realtor with Aston Rose, a luxury brokerage in Florida. This can help you determine whether they’re serious about selling or just testing the market, she says.

“It’s also important to know when the seller is reviewing offers, and if they need post-occupancy once the home is sold,” she continues. And it’s smart to inquire about the air conditioning or heating system and roof, too: “If they are originals, you have to be prepared to potentially replace them or move on to another property.”

Open house checklist for buyers

Here’s a handy checklist of items to examine during your open house visit. Bring it with you and check things off the list as you make your way through the home, so you don’t forget anything essential.

  • Appliances: Are they in good condition?
  • Cabinets: Is there sufficient cabinet space in the kitchen and bathrooms? Pay special attention to cabinets under sinks, as water stains or mold could indicate plumbing issues.
  • Ceilings: Look for signs of water damage.
  • Electrical outlets: Are there enough of them, and are they conveniently located?
  • Flooring: Be on the lookout for warped floorboards, cracked tiles, etc.
  • Landscaping: Landscaping can be expensive. Is the yard in good shape?
  • Light switches: Flip them to make sure they all work.
  • Outbuildings: Don’t forget to check out any structures outside of the main house, like a shed or garage.
  • Room size: Is each room big enough to accommodate the furniture you envision there?
  • Storage space: Are there enough closets to store all your belongings? And are they conveniently placed?
  • Windows: What direction do the windows face? Is the view one that you’ll enjoy, and does it allow enough sunlight to come in?

Open house red flags

Even if a home looks great on the surface, it may not be as lovely as it appears. After all, the seller is trying to present their home in the best possible light for this event. While at an open house, pay attention to what others are saying about the property. They may have insights on the home, neighborhood or schools that you weren’t aware of.

Some warning signs to be aware of include outside nuisances, like noisy streets, barking dogs or unruly neighborhood children. And take note if you come across anything that just doesn’t sit right with you. An overpowering air freshener might be masking the smell of mildew, for example, and an odd furniture placement could be hiding cracked plaster or a damaged floor. Trust your instincts.

Bottom line

Today’s market conditions pose challenges for homebuyers, but all hope is not lost. Navigating an open house like a professional, and being prepared to submit an offer quickly if you love it, can give you an advantage over other home shoppers. “In the current market, you want to be a well-rounded buyer who’s prepared to make an offer immediately following the open house,” Green says.

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