A few tips on open house etiquette.

Last week I gave my fellow agents a few suggestions on proper etiquette during broker’s tour. For today’s etiquette lesson, young ladies and gentlemen, I’ll pass on a few tips on proper behavior at an open house. Just call me the Miss Manners of real estate.

Miss Manners

Most open house attendees seem to understand the implied, simple and easy-to-meet ground rules. First, they should act like they mean business, whether they do or not. Walking through the door of an open house implies that they’re there to inspect and evaluate, not sightsee like they’re at Hurst Castle. In other words, even if this is just recreation, don’t advertise it. Second, whether they do mean business or not, they’re in someone else’s home on the sufferance of the owner and his or her agent. Attending an open house is a privilege, not a right.

We take open houses for granted, but they’re actually anomalous, odd events that place certain unspoken, unwritten demands on attendees. People who ordinarily would have neither the need nor the opportunity to enter a stranger’s home and wander about opening closets and commenting critically on the furnishings are seemingly invited to do so.

A multitude of A-frames lead—no, impel—visitors toward the open house. Cars parked in front and people milling about give it a festive, party-like atmosphere. The front door is usually wide open. The agent always invites you in like an old friend and encourages you to look around. There may even be refreshments. You can stay as long as you like, and talk to the agent as long as you want. In fact, please do.

So if a few open house visitors turn out to be gate crashers and tire kickers, that’s the agent’s and seller’s problem, right? After all, they asked for it, right?

I don’t think so. I think that while formalized rules—civil and criminal laws, codes of ethics, professional and spiritual standards of conduct—are the glue that ultimately binds self-interested individuals into functioning society, codified coercion should be only a last resort. Which is a long-winded way of saying that sometimes the only rules are common sense and common courtesy. And, aside from the occasional “Please Remove Shoes” sign that never fails to irritate a few, these rules are rarely posted at open houses for your guidance.

Experiences at two recent open houses suggest that perhaps a small portion of the open-house attending public may find these tips on etiquette helpful.

In the first instance, I was holding open my own listing in a neighborhood I won’t characterize as either “good” or “bad”. It is a neighborhood most locals don’t venture into unless they have to. In fact, many avoid it. And if they do venture there, they probably don’t amble through like sightseers. They drive through purposefully, with their windows up and their doors locked.

At least I do, and I’ve been going out there for years. This listing was the only one I’ve ever had that got me a death threat on my voicemail. I didn’t report it as a hate crime because I didn’t think the caller was all that serious. But I don’t really know. Maybe I should have reported it. I understand the FBI collects statistics on this.

So it was with surprise and even concern that I saw Dad, Mom and young Daughter teeter up to my listing on their balloon-tire Schwinns. I remember my exact words: “I don’t believe this”.

Maybe I’m giving them too much credit—maybe they were just seeing how far they could get before they got mugged—but my guess is that Dad, Mom and Daughter were pedaling from their home, in a nearby but different neighborhood, to a park that lies on the other side of this neighborhood. And to someone unfamiliar with the area who looks at a local map, this neighborhood might seem like a handy shortcut. But an innocent family excursion had taken them past a community where gang-related shootings make headlines. Then, to get to my listing, they’d had to pedal patiently past block after block of barred windows, peeling paint and scorched-earth landscaping scattered randomly but frequently among other equally humble but better-maintained homes.

Which explains my incredulity. They disembark, enter the house, walk past the fireplace on their way to the kitchen, and Mom asks if there’s a fireplace. Dad picks up the inspection report, turns to a page at random and reads aloud in a disapproving tone, “The crawlspace does not have rat-proofing”. All this sentence means is that the ground under the house isn’t covered in concrete, and in over twenty years in real estate I’ve seen maybe two or three homes with rat-proofing. But Dad doesn’t know this. All Dad knows is this is his chance to shine in front of Mom and Daughter.

Well, after wandering aimlessly through the house like tourists at a national monument that turns out to be not particularly interesting, they finally leave. And as I watch this expedition about as doomed and pointless as the Donner Party through the living room picture window, Dad looks at me and sees the incredulous expression I can feel on my face. He says, “A few years ago that house would’ve sold for…” and his voice trails off in the distance. He probably said “$1.98”. Good old Dad. Always (needs to be) the expert.

A month or so later I’m at another open house, also my own listing, a nicely remodeled condo. In walks a neighbor who immediately starts pointing out the sellers’ poor taste in colors, light fixtures, window coverings etc. Well, I’m a fairly patient guy, and it’s a free country, but this goes on and on and, to make things worse, there’s another couple in the condo, potential buyers, who must be overhearing this monotone rant. Finally my wife, the only one in the family with any real backbone (or the only one who doesn’t mind alienating a resident of a condo development I spend lots of money farming) snaps, “If you don’t like this place, get out”. The neighbor looks stricken and slinks out. I pick my jaw up off the floor, look at my wife and almost slink out myself.

Well, I won’t mention the woman at another open house who not only went through every closet but also started going through every cabinet and would probably have tried on the seller’s clothes if I hadn’t asked her to stop. She did, but not graciously. Or the couple whose toddler was ready to launch himself over the balcony railing while they were at the other end of the condo exclaiming over the upgrades. “Do we have a son?” Or the unhappy-looking man who, when I asked how he’d heard about the open house, bellowed, “I don’t need to buy a house! I already live in Palo Alto!” Even his agent, who looked like she could bend nails with her teeth, looked mildly embarrassed.

On second thought, forget what I said about acting like you mean business when you walk into an open house. Wander through the house like it’s the first time you’ve seen indoor plumbing and I won’t mind. Just don’t let the moment go to your head, and I’ll be happy.

copyright © John Fyten 2009

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