The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman


Is the good old-fashioned open house still a powerful marketing tool, or is it now pointless in this age of electronic media?

It's a question that's debated often among real estate agents. Some love open houses, some hate them. But many still use them, if not to snag a buyer, then at least to hook new clients.

According to a recent poll by the trade magazine Real Estate, agents are almost evenly divided about open houses, with 44 percent in favor and 56 percent against. At the same time, though, 62 percent -- almost two-thirds -- host one to three open houses every month. Only 24 percent won't sit in a house on a Saturday or Sunday, waiting and hoping for a buyer.

If you are going to hold an open house, you should make sure your agent doesn't simply stick a sign in the front yard and hope prospects show up. Rather, he or she should make it an event, like the folks at Chicago's Kuehl Group brokerage do.

"We take open houses seriously and consider them an important initiative in our marketing strategy," broker-owner MaryEllen Kuehl posted on the ActiveRain real estate site recently.

Some sellers don't like open houses. After all, selling a house is stressful enough without adding a weekend or two where they have to leave for several hours, kids and pets in tow, allowing anyone and everyone to walk through their pristine palaces.

But Kuehl said in an interview that once she lays out her plan, most of her clients agree to give it a shot. "They understand they need to do some work, too," she said. "They realize the benefit. The more qualified people who see their house, the more quickly it will sell."

To stage an open house, Kuehl says preparation is key, and that it should start months in advance. Here are some of the steps her agents take to make open houses a success.

-- In selecting the day and time for your open house, your agent should do some research into what's going on in your area to minimize conflicts and optimize attendance. If there's a big ball game on Saturday or Sunday, for example, skip that weekend and pick one where there's relatively little going on.

-- Advertising is key. The Kuehl Group sends postcards to the neighbors, because often a neighbor will know someone who is in the market for a place close to theirs. For example, a nurse I know just sold her house to her next-door neighbor's father without having to do any marketing.

Kuehl Group agents also send email announcements to every agent and broker in the Chicago area, as well as to her own agents' private mailing lists. The client's sphere of influence is also notified via social media, and the event is publicized on specialized open house websites.

-- "The online marketing should be complete and flawless," says Kuehl. Social media is important, she says, since "most visitors will check out a house online" before dropping by.

Toward that end, she hires a professional photographer to take pictures, which she then puts on a custom site for each seller's home. These individualized sites feature virtual tours and the day and time of the open house. The company goes so far as buying targeted ads on Facebook to run the 24 hours prior to the event.

-- Next, Kuehl agents help their clients with staging the property so it shows as well as possible. They make suggestions on arranging furniture, presenting each room's highlights, removing personal items and setting up lighting.

-- On the day of the open house, directional signs are placed at every point of entry into the neighborhood. The sign placed in front of the house is adorned somehow, often with balloons or flags. If the weather is inclement, a sign at the front door asks visitors to remove their shoes, with "footies" provided to cover stocking feet.

To keep the home fresh in visitors' minds, Kuehl agents also offer custom water bottles with pictures of the house on the label.

-- For a good first impression, sellers are asked to mow their lawns just prior to the event. It also is suggested that they freshen flowerbeds and put down a new doormat.

-- Just before the anointed hour, agents put some cookies in the oven or boil lemons on the stove. Plan B: scented candles. "The wafting smells are so inviting," Kuehl says.

Her agents disdain putting out food, though. "Sellers work too hard to keep their places clean to have crumbs all over the place," Kuehl explains. Food is only for open houses held for local brokers agents, and even then, she doesn't think it's really necessary: "Some just come for the food."

As you can see, it's not easy to pull off a top-notch open house. But it could be well worth the trouble if the house sells quickly, and for top dollar.

Always, the Chicagoland broker advises, the goal should be "to make sure homes show like a shiny new dime and bring in the best possible pool of prospective buyers. We know buyers are picturing themselves living in the house as they tour, and we do everything in our power to make it easy for them."