Neighborhood Intel

17 tips for casing the joint, from an open-house addict

By Lucy Cohen Blatter  | August 2, 2012 - 2:38PM

Upper West Sider Michael Waxenberg is what you might call an open house junkie. He has attended hundreds of NYC open houses over the last five years and freely shared his views about many of them online at StreetEasy, where he comments under the handle West 81st.

His passion for attending open houses, and critiquing them, has earned him two New York Times mentions, including a recent profile in the paper's 'Appraisal' column and a real-estate section cover storyMeanwhile, what started out as a hobby has turned into a job:  Waxenberg now works part-time as a broker for The Burkhardt Group.

Today, the open house enthusiast shares his expert tips for making an open house worth your time.

  1. Don’t go to just any open house in your price range. “Once you have an idea of what you like, try to narrow your focus to buildings and locations that make sense for you, and listings that offer your must-have features [like, for example, good public schools],” Waxenberg says. "Why waste Sundays raising your frustration level?  That's what weekdays are for."
  2. Do some homework first  Prepare at least one or two questions you know the answer to. "Whether I get honest, well-informed answers can give me a good sense of whether the brokers are honest," says Waxenberg. "That’s how they earn my confidence.” You may also want to do your research ahead of time on things like the type of mortgage the owners have, the renovation dates, etc. “What you see will be more meaningful to you if you have that context," he says.
  3. Keep an eye on what you see before you enter the apartment. “I think your elevator landing contains an awful lot of clues,” Waxenberg says. The upkeep of the common areas -- and the exteriors -- tells you what you're going to have to deal with in terms of future repairs.
  4. There’s no reason to provide your real name on the sign-in sheet. “You're basically signing yourself up for every e-mail list,” Waxenberg says. 
  5. Only bring your broker if you want to. “The broker has an ulterior motive -- to cement his claim to a commission. "You may be fine with that, but understand that involving a broker may ultimately cost you negotiating leverage, or even the apartment."
  6. Anything that blocks your view is your enemy. “Don’t be afraid to pull things up, and look behind rugs, wall hangings and wall units," he says.
  7. Look carefully at electrics. Be on the lookout for for red flags like two-pronged outlets in kitchens and bathrooms, which "may indicate that the whole electrical system is totally antiquated. You'll have to deal with that if you buy the place.”
  8. Open under-sink cabinets and poke around.  "Aside from obvious plumbing problems, you will get a pretty good idea of how well the owners care for their home.
  9. Don’t take the broker’s word for anything. If you have doubts about a broker's claims regarding other offers, the sellers' reasons for moving, the cost and provenance of renovations, or anything else, don't hesitate to ask for documentation. You won't get it, but the broker's reaction to the request may tell you a lot.
  10. Look for the manufacture date stamps on the appliances (refrigerator, microwaves and stoves). This will tell you when the kitchen was last renovated and confirm or cast doubt upon information provided by the broker.
  11. Keep your eyes down Look for attempts to block the space under doors leading outside the apartment. "Any sort of pad, gasket or seal is a sure sign of a pest problem--most likely mice or waterbugs," says Waxenberg.
  12. Walk through the apartment as if you live in it. “Think about your daily routine, and how it would fit into the apartment. For example, a Jack-and-Jill bathroom may not work for your daily morning routine.”
  13. See the space with a cold eye, for what it is. “Assume nothing is possible, and that anything that turns out to be possible will cost much more than it's worth.  If a washer-dryer were really feasible, you'd probably see one. Maintain your skepticism. ... Curb your imagination, and simply try to picture the space without the current owners' stuff.  Brokers will encourage you to imagine all kinds of improvements. For the most part, you should resist this urge,” Waxenberg says.
  14. Take advantage of a busy open house. “I actually like busy open houses because I get to eavesdrop, and I'm less conspicuous,” says Waxenberg. “You get to look around. If the brokers are tied up, just follow up with them by phone later. The only real downside to busy open house is that it means you have competition,” he adds.
  15. Time it well. Waxenberg prefers to hit the end of an open house. First, he can take a look at the sign-in sheet and get a good idea if there’s a lot of interest in the property. But Waxenberg also says that, by the end of the open house, brokers tend to let their guard down a bit, and may be more open, honest and forthcoming.
  16. Try to take a look at the amenities. Now is the time to check out the common areas, like gyms, storage rooms, bike rooms and roof decks, since it can be difficult to gain entrance to these at another time. When checking out a bike room, look to see if there are a lot of kid-sized bikes. That could be a good sign for families, but not so much for singles. You’ll also want to know how well kept these are, and if there’s a lot of work to be done (and money to be spent).
  17. Give yourself a break. “Don’t try to pack too many into a day,” says Waxenberg. "It's hard for most people to process more than four or five. When all of the apartments are starting to blend into each other, call it a day. Or at least go to Starbucks and take a break. You’re not going to find your home when your jaded.”


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