The open house circuit can feel stressful and intimidating. You're filing in and out of strangers' homes and apartments, hoping this one might be the one. But how can you know? Luckily, those agents—you know, the ones manning the cookie tables, holding piles of business cards—can answer all your burning questions. You just need to know which ones to ask. Here, the top 10 questions to ask at an open house to help determine whether or not the space is right for you.
1. Why is the owner selling?
While this question may not garner you a straight answer, GieFaan Kim, an agent with Triplemint in New York City, says it should be top of your to-ask list.
"It's often difficult to decipher if the answer is truthful or not, but at least it gives you a temperature of what to expect if making an offer," he says. Listen for clues: Are the sellers moving cross-country? If so, they might be eager to unload the place, letting you swoop in with a good deal. Or perhaps they're just tired of maintaining a second home or investment property—so they might hold out for the highest offer.
2. How are the schools?
If you're moving to a new neighborhood with young kids, the agent hosting the open house can give you a run down of the region's educational strengths and weaknesses. Just make sure to do some research of your own, too—and ask questions relevant to your kids' needs.
"Everyone wants great schools," says Alison Bernstein, who developed the company Suburban Jungle, which helps city-dwellers move to the suburbs. "But please note that your idea of a good school can be very different from my idea. Pressure cookers are not for every kid, and understanding the dynamic of the school system outside from just scores is paramount."
3. What renovations have been done?
Buyers should understand the property's renovation history. This question gives you a broader picture of the home's health—knowing the kitchen and appliances are new can take a weight off your shoulder. Beware of an over-renovated house: While it might mean the previous owners simply love their HGTV, but it also may spell trouble with the home's bones.
"Inquire what major improvements were completed during the owner's tenure," Lance Marrs, a broker with Living Room Realty in Portland, Oregon, says. "Less is more, but the responses are telling."
If you're purchasing a condo, Kim recommends prying about the building or co-op's management. A finicky board may hamper your makeover dreams. He recommends asking how long it took to gain board approval for renovations, as well as what the overall experience working with the building was.
4. What's the commute like?
Of course, you shouldn't expect the realtor to plug in your route to work and spit out exactly what Google says. You're looking for intangibles here, especially if you'll be commuting via public transit.
"Is there no parking in the community, or is there a 10-year waiting list for the train station lot?" asks Bernstein. "Is the nearest train standing-room only by the time you'll hop on?" Knowing the answers to these questions will help you assess your true time (and experience) spent in transit.
5. What financial expectations should I have of the Homeowners Association (HOA) or building board?
Purchasing a home in an HOA or co-op requires its own tricky set of considerations.
"Potential buyers often forget to ask about financials and history of maintenance increases," says Svetlana Choi, an agent with Warburg Realty in New York City. Just because the property's current monthly or yearly maintenance fee is currently low doesn't mean it will stay that way. What's currently $300 a month could easily become $500 per month at the whim of the board or HOA. A history of maintenance increases can be a serious warning sign.
6. How does this area treat child care?
If you're planning to be a stay-at-home parent and all the neighbors use daycare, the mismatch in dynamics may make your day a little lonelier.
"Understand the town's child care personality," says Bernstein. "It can change the dynamic of not just logistics, but also socializing and lifestyle." Will you be surrounded by nannies or au pairs? Is there no daycare in easy reach because everyone stays at home? Keeping this in mind during your home search can make your future life much easier.
7. Why wouldn't I buy this house?
This may seem like an odd question to ask, but Elizabeth O'Neill, also an agent at Warburg, says she was particularly impressed by a potential buyer that asked this at an open house.
"I have never been asked this before," she says. "I thought it was a very smart and probing question."
Pay attention to how the broker responds. Do they have a thorough and thought-out answer about the kind of buyer who may not be suited to this home—or do they stumble through and claim the space suits everyone? Maybe the second-floor bathroom won't work if you frequently host your aging parents, or the tiny, shaded backyard isn't best for avid gardeners.
Just because there's a reason someone wouldn't buy the home doesn't mean it's inherently broken, but an agent that's not willing to share the house's flaw may be hiding something.
8. How does the town treat summer?
If you're hoping to join a tight-knit community in your new home or co-op building, make sure to ask what happens when the weather heats up.
"Does the town clear out as everyone heads to Nantucket or the Hamptons while you envisioned having block BBQs?" asks Bernstein. Are the kids gone at sleepaway camp all summer, leaving your children with no playmates? "These are all important factors to consider."
9. How are the neighbors?
When determining your new neighborhood's personality, don't forget to ask another important question: How are your immediate neighbors? Do they blast music at 2 a.m. or have late-night parties all summer long? Is their dog obnoxious and loud?
Don't expect to get the full story from the agent hosting the open house, but you may get a clue. "Be a little coy when you leave the house," says Collette Rabba, an Ontario-based realtor. "Hang around outside and talk to any neighbors walking their dog or raking the grass."
Pay particular attention to the state of the neighborhood's houses: Are the lawns in decent shape? Do the owners show pride in their homes? "That just makes the neighborhood more desirable when it's time to sell," says Rabba.
10. What's the timeline for selling?
Walking into a situation with an obvious buyer-seller timing mismatch can be a recipe for disaster. "In an ideal situation, a closing is well-coordinated between both parties," says Jeanne Kempton, an agent at Stribling in New York City. "But the reality is that you may have different time frames for a closing."
Potential hurdles include upcoming vacations, work transfers, and school holidays. If you're in a hurry and they're not—or vice versa—it may stretch both sides' patience. The open house is the perfect place to figure out any obvious mismatches before you put in an offer and things get sticky.