The cherry blossoms are blooming, temperatures are finally starting to rise and ‘for sale’ signs have popped up on lawns across the city. It’s officially open house season. Data from the US revealed that more homes sell in the first two weeks of May than during any other time of the year — which naturally brings prospective homebuyers (and a few nosy neighbours) out of the woodwork like zombies in an apocalypse.

“Some people are professionals,” says realtor Jenelle Cameron. “They get all the open houses queued up in a weekend and then go from one to the other. They know exactly where they’re going and what they’re looking for.

I spoke to four Toronto-based realtors so you know what to expect at your first open house, how to evaluate the homes you’re looking at, and the etiquette best observed to make a good impression.

Photo: Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash

How do I find open houses?

All the realtors suggested looking on for listings where you can find the listing price, property details and open house information. You can also scout for open houses by looking at ‘for sale’ signs on lawns — if there isn’t an open house advertised, dial up the number and ask.

Cameron recommends narrowing your search by two key metrics: location and price. You can determine your affordability by getting pre-approved for a mortgage or simply by taking a close look at your budget and crunching the numbers.

“The common adage for real estate has always been location, location, location — but sometimes that needs to take a backseat for first-time buyers,” says Toronto-based realtor Arianna Codeluppi. “They may very well want the trendy location but affordability just can’t reach it. They end up spinning their wheels — trying and missing out on multiple offers.” To avoid this, Codeluppi recommends being open-minded for your starter home by looking in outlying neighbourhoods. “A lot of young buyers are flocking to the ‘less desirable areas.’ But that just brings property values up. Then you can leverage that property into buying in the location you originally desired for your second property. You can try to save up for it but it’s very hard.”

Photo: James Bombales

Should I get a realtor?

When Ralph Fox from Fox Marin Associates is hosting an open house, he can almost always tell when people have representation or not. “I won’t necessarily know how far along they are in their home search, but with representation they definitely seem more educated and have a better sense of what’s happening and what they’re looking for.”

In fast-paced markets like Toronto, having a realtor can help you interpret what’s going on. “When you’re talking to an agent at an open house, you’re only going to get part of the story and that’s the story they want you to hear. So it’s hard to have perspective on what’s actually going on without having someone that you trust to give you guidance,” says Fox.

They will also help you get your ducks in a row for offer day and will counsel you on what’s happening with the property relative to the market — things like determining an appropriate offer price.

When Cameron is hosting an open house, she gauges how serious a client is, in part, based on whether or not they have a realtor. If you don’t have a realtor, Cameron cautions you to never take the seller’s realtor as your own. This is referred to as ‘multiple representation’ and is a serious conflict of interest. Typically, buyers and sellers will have separate representation and their realtor will make a commission from the sale (around 2.5 percent). With multiple representation, they make a commission from both sides (usually up to five percent) and can use inside information to manipulate the sale. “If we’re doing our jobs effectively, we need to make sure that we don’t compromise anyone’s best interest for our own. This is almost impossible with multiple representation,” says Cameron.

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What are good questions to ask at an open house?

“You should be asking about the mechanics in the house,” advises Cameron. “How old are the windows, the furnace, the air conditioner? Have there been any issues with the home that should be identified? Any water leakage in the basement or from the roof? Any pest problems?”

Next, you want to turn your attention to the logistics of the sale. Is there an offer date? Is a home inspection available? In hotter markets, sellers will often have a pre-listing inspection done. If you aren’t comfortable taking their word for it, you can always bring in a home inspector before you make an offer or put in your offer with an inspection condition.

Kori Marin, the other half of Fox Marin Associates, suggests you tailor your questions based on the type of property you’re looking at.

When you’re looking at a condo:

  • Is a status certificate available for the building?
  • Have there been any issues or special assessments in the building?
  • What do the fees include?
  • Who are the neighbours?
  • What percentage of the building are renters versus homeowners?
  • What are the building amenities and can you take a look at them?
  • How many times has the condo turned over — how many owners has it had?
  • Was it formerly rented and if so, how much rent did it go for?
  • Are there any restrictions for having pets?
  • Is there high tech plumbing?
  • Are any other developments coming into the area? (For example, if there’s a parking lot across the street, the seller’s realtor should be able to tell you what development applications are in store for it).

When you’re looking at a home:

  • Is there a pre-list home inspection?
  • Is there a survey for the property?
  • Is the parking legal?
  • Are there any issues with the house that the owners have dealt with?
  • If there have been any upgrades, what are they?

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Can you ask what the seller’s expectations for the sale price are?

This is a trickier one. “Your agent should do their due diligence to determine what similar properties have sold for. But I think sometimes you can get some hints from the selling agent depending on how they answer the question,” says Marin.

It’s a very common practice in Toronto to list under-market value and sell way beyond the list price. “Essentially there are three prices,” explains Fox. “One is the list price — and that’s nothing more than a marketing number. The second is the valuation range the property is worth based on comparables and/or price-per-square-foot. Then there’s what it could sell for on any given day or night.”

Instead of asking outright what the seller’s expectations are, you could ask the seller’s realtor what comparable homes have sold for. “When you’re speaking to a seller’s agent, you have to remember the agent doesn’t represent you and they don’t represent your best interests,” says Fox. “They can’t guarantee what it will sell for and they may not want to disclose what their sellers expectations are. But if you’re asking them a factual question, a good agent will be able to tell you the answer. Often agents will bring comparables to the actual open house.”

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How do I determine if the place is right for me?

“I like to tell my clients to pay attention to the things that they can’t change,” says Codeluppi. “The location, the size of the house, potentially the layout…but to be less hung up on decor, colours and all that stuff. Paint and lighting can be easily changed and it’s not even that expensive.”

Cameron also recommends looking past the picture-perfect staging so you can imagine how you’ll actually live in the space. Where will the TV go? Is there enough natural light for you to stay sane? Can the bedroom fit your king mattress?

Fox and Marin suggest drilling down to what’s truly important to you. “There is no perfect house. People are always going to have to make trade-offs. As you go through the process, you start to understand what’s important and what’s not important. Once you get to that point, you’re able to identify the characteristics of a property within the price range and specific neighborhoods you’re looking at.” In other words, you will eventually come to know value when you see it — and understand the hard truth that what you want isn’t necessarily what you’re going to get.

You don’t have to decide if you’re going to buy the place at the open house. If you’re interested in the property, let the realtor know and have your realtor get in touch with them to arrange a viewing or set it up yourself. For Fox and Marin, they can give around 40 private viewings for downtown Toronto properties.

Photo: Filios Sazeides on Unsplash

Should I take my shoes off?

Wear shoes that slip on-and-off easily because you’re going to have to take them off. You can peek inside cabinets and storage — but don’t go all Nancy Drew on things like testing the taps and shower for water pressure. Save that for the home inspection.

“I think people need to remember that they’re not coming into a store or a public place. It’s someone’s home, and yes, it’s offered up for sale, but you have to be extremely respectful of the property owner. And, you know, it’s our job as realtors to protect ourselves, and also protect the seller and their property,” says Codeluppi.

Lastly, don’t be rude to the seller’s realtor. “You get people who come through and don’t want to talk to you and they walk around so annoyed that you’re there,” says Cameron. “I think it’s important to remember that agents are there to help. We are there to sell the property on our clients behalf, represent them as best as we can and help you. Our intention is not to annoy you.”

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