When you go to an open house, it’s easy to get caught up in your own world of hypotheticals: How would you decorate the bedrooms if this home were yours? Is this a good open kitchen for hosting Taco Tuesdays? Is there a fireplace to cozy up to on a crisp fall night and binge-watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”?
But as much as you do need to try to imagine yourself in the home—and figure out whether it works for you—you shouldn’t shut out what’s going on around you. In fact, the seemingly innocuous chitchat you overhear can help you decide whether to follow through and make an offer—or to get the hell out of there.
That isn’t to say that you should rely on complete strangers to tell you how you feel about a house. But the comments and criticisms you pick up on during an open house can contain nuggets of valuable financial and personal info you can put to use. Here are some you should keep an ear (or two) out for.
1. ‘The owners are flexible on price’
Translation: “What [the agent] is really saying is that the home can and will be sold for under asking price,” explains David Ranish, co-owner of Ethos International, a full-service real estate office in Lancaster, CA.
If you’re serious about making an offer, use this nugget of info to your advantage. Take a closer look around the property with a critical eye. Do the kitchen appliances need updating? Is the backyard in dire need of landscaping? Now that you know the homeowner’s in a selling mood, you’re in a perfect position to submit a low bid. Any repairs and issues will give you leverage to negotiate.
2. ‘What’s that smell in the basement?’
Translation: There might be a big problem afoot.
If you overhear visitors discussing a specific issue—say, a damp smell in the basement, or maybe evidence of termites in the attic—“it can certainly be used as leverage when writing an offer,” says Kerry Adams with TTR Sotheby’s in Alexandria, VA. “Or it may be enough for you to decide you don’t want to take on a potential problem.”
And if other visitors are talking about it, let’s be honest: The problem is probably big enough to cause headaches.
3. ‘Wow, the sellers are getting out just in time’
Translation: The neighborhood could be on the decline.
When you go to an open house, you shouldn’t just zero in on the home itself. This is your chance to get a feel for the community. So really listen to what the community is saying.
“Since open houses tend to attract curious neighbors, they can be the ideal setting for a potential buyer to find out about hot-button issues such as future development, traffic, area crime, or just neighborhood nuisances,” Adams says.
If you’re looking for a home in a relatively quiet neighborhood, for instance, you might be grateful to find out now about the new six-lane highway that’s slated to go up a half-mile away.
4. ‘This price is way too high’
Sure, the price of the home you’re looking at might seem high—but that doesn’t mean it’s not fair market value for the neighborhood.
“Sometimes a property is priced correctly, but buyers might not realize it,” points out Doug Milch of Century 21 Commonwealth in Natick, MA.
That’s why it’s crucial to check comps—the data on what other similar homes in the neighborhood are selling for—and make sure the house you’re touring lines up. If it still seems high, don’t run for the hills just yet. (After all, the other potential buyers could be trying to psych you out so they can put in their own offer.) You should consider adjusting your bid accordingly.
5. ‘Sweet, our couch would fit perfectly in here!’
Translation: You have competition.
“Listen for interest at an open house,” advises Deni Supplee, a Realtor® and co-founder of SparkRental.com. “Interested home buyers will often travel through the home, slowly and intently, using phrases such as ‘Our living room set would fit perfectly’ or ‘Do you think our bed would look good in this room?’”
These are clear indicators they’re thinking about putting in an offer. And if you can see yourself living in that house, too, you’d better act fast.
“The worst is losing out on [a home] because someone got there first,” Supplee says.
6. The words ‘foreclosure’ or ‘divorce’
Translation: The sellers’ misfortune—sad as it may be for them—could work in your favor.
If you hear the word “foreclosure,” “then you should pay attention,” says Brett Ari Fischer, associate broker at Lee & Associates Residential NYC in New York. “They may be open to selling it for less than they want to, due to time restrictions.”
“Divorce” is another word to listen for.
If the owners are splitting up and/or need to split their assets, “it’s likely that they don’t want to hang onto the home too long because it’s that much longer until they can move on with the rest of their lives,” Fischer says.
Before jumping to conclusions, do your homework
Of course, it’s always a good idea to consider your source. One nosy neighbor might think she knows that it will cost a fortune to repair the roof. But does she, really? Take everything you hear (or overhear) with a grain of salt. If you’re genuinely concerned, share that info with your agent.
That said, don’t discount anything entirely. “A lot of times [the seller’s] agents will give up too much information,” Ranish says.
Indeed, some listing agents tend to follow buyers around at open houses. While it might initially cramp your style, roll with it. “Let them talk, and they’ll tell you more information,” Ranish says.