There are only so many home photos and descriptions that you can view online. Eventually, you'll want to go out to see some properties in person. Open houses are a fun way to check out a variety of homes, while getting an up-close look at neighborhoods. When you go to an open house, pick up the property-information sheet and take notes on what you like and dislike. After seeing several homes, those notes will help you remember specific property details. And don't be afraid to take pictures, but ask the hosting real estate agent first if it's okay.
It's standard procedure at an open house to sign in with some basic contact information. However, if you wish not to be contacted by the agent, be sure to indicate that next to your name. Also, if you already have an agent who sends you to an open house unaccompanied by him, then you should tell this to the open house host and add your agent's name next to yours on the sign-in sheet.
Some agents like to hover over you as you tour a house or speak to you about all its features and benefits. However, if you prefer to be left alone, tell the agent that you would like to take your time and look around at your leisure. It's perfectly fine to open closets and cabinets, but respect the owner's personal property.
Ask the right questions
Feel free to inquire about local schools or the community, but don't ask about the profile of the neighborhood's residents or if the area is safe. These types of questions are discriminatory, and if an agent responds to them in earnest, he or she could be violating The Fair Housing Act. If you need crime statistics, look them up online or visit the local police station.
If you're looking at condominiums, ask the host agent if there are any proposed special assessments for capital improvements, such as a new roof. Don't forget to inquire about the association's 'reserve fund,' rainy-day money for unexpected repairs and maintenance. Another good question is whether the building or association allows condo owners to rent units. If so, what is the percentage allowed to be leased? If you're a pet lover, verify that the building you're interested in allows cats and dogs, and if there is a limit on the number of pets and their weight.
When viewing single-family homes, ask about recent improvements, such as insulation, new plumbing or other upgrades that you can't see. If the home has a basement, look for water seepage or flooding, which often evident at the bottom of basement walls. Ask if there is a Residential Real Property Disclosure that you can see. Most states require home sellers to disclose in writing any known material defects, such as cracked foundation walls or leaky roofs. Is the roof old? Look for curled shingles. If the roof looks good, ask the agent how old it is. Don't overlook the age of the windows -- if you end up replacing them, it will cost you plenty.
Keep in mind that the majority of home sellers and their agents try to put the best face on their property for an open house. While fresh flowers, home-baked cookies, and today's cutting-edge paint and decor can say 'Wow!' be sure to look past the staging and focus on the home's mechanical and structural systems.