What Should You Take to an Open House? These 10 Questions

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By Virginia C. McGuire

Being ready with the right questions can strengthen your position come offer time.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of window-shopping -- browsing through the racks on the off chance you'll find a diamond in the rough. But when you're looking to buy something as expensive as a home (when else do you drop hundreds of thousands of dollars without missing a beat?), there's no room for error. Every open house presents an opportunity to land that hidden gem, or to sniff out an overpriced dud.

Visiting an open house gives you, the prospective buyer, an opportunity to speak directly to the seller's agent.

The best way to take advantage of this personal meeting? Be prepared. Get the inside scoop by asking these 10 questions:

1. How many offers have been made?
Does the agent look happy? Maybe even ... suspiciously happy? If the agent seems distracted and isn't giving you the "hard sell," that might be a sign another offer is on the way, or several already are in hand.

If the agent already has received offers, he or she probably will be eager to share the news with you -- in hopes that you'll bid as well and drive up the price. Make sure to anticipate the conversation by asking the agent directly how many offers have been made on the home so that you can negotiate accordingly.

2. Has the asking price fluctuated?
Your agent can find out how many times the price has shifted since the home was first listed, but the seller's agent will likely jump at the chance to explain why. Perhaps the price dropped because the seller has to move on a tight timeline.

Information like this might even clue you in that the list price is somewhat flexible, and you can use that to your advantage when it's time to draft your offer letter.

3. Why do the sellers want to move?
If the sellers are moving because the area is unsafe, the schools are terrible, or the neighbor practices the drums at midnight, it would be good to know that. (Up-and-coming neighborhoods can be a find or a serious mistake, so it's important to weigh the pros and cons.) The seller's
agent might be loath to share details with you, but it's important to ask this question anyway and do your best to try to read between the lines.

4. How long has the property been on the market?
You can find this information yourself on Trulia or by asking your agent, but the seller's agent will be able to put this information in context.

Perhaps it's been on the market for a long time, but only because the sellers received an offer from a buyer whose financing fell through. Or perhaps the house went on the market this week, but the sellers have had a lot of interest and expect it to sell quickly.

All of this is useful when you're deciding whether to make an offer.

5. Are there any issues with the home?
The seller is required to tell potential buyers about any known structural problems or code violations. It's standard to ask for a written seller's disclosure, so request one -- and if you're lucky, a talkative agent or seller might reveal more in person.

6. When was the house last updated?
Clearly visible updates, like new appliances or a fresh coat of paint, are easy to identify. However, features like the age of the roof and wiring that aren't easily seen are equally important and need to be questioned.

Come prepared with a list of features you want to inquire about, but gauge the relative mood of the agent and seller before diving into nitty-gritty questions at the open house.

7. How much do utilities cost?
You need to know what you're getting into before you make an offer. Ask to see recent utility bills. If you're moving from an apartment into a single-family home, you might be surprised at the impact utility bills have on your budget.

8. What's the seller's timeline?
Sometimes sellers choose a buyer's offer simply because of timing. Perhaps they want to sell quickly because of a job offer, or delay the sale so their kids can finish the school year.

The more you know about what the sellers want, the more easily you can work around it and put together a tempting offer while getting a good deal on the price.

9. Where can I get a bite to eat?
Getting directions to a local eatery or coffee shop will tell you a lot about the neighborhood. If there's a retail strip close by that locals frequent and feel proud of, chances are you would love it too.

10. What are the neighbors like?
Is the neighborhood kid-friendly? Are there lots of retired people? Is there a thriving bar scene on the weekends?

Some people are fine doing their own thing and don't require (or want) a tight-knit neighborhood. But other people are much happier if they're surrounded by kindred souls who are in a similar stage of life. The seller's agent will be able to give valuable information about the people you'd be rubbing shoulders with if you bought the house.

And don't forget: While open houses are great venues to ask questions and listen, be careful not to give away more than you want to about your own situation. Being discreet about your finances and how much you love the home will benefit you when it's time to bargain for a good price.

Virginia C. McGuire is a freelance writer specializing in architecture and design, gardening, sustainable cities, and real estate. She contributes regularly to a column about international real estate for the New York Times.

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