Hiro Masuike for The New York Times
TOUR GUIDE Geri Epstein, an executive vice president of Bellmarc Realty, presides over an open house at 300 East 40th Street. From left, she shows the view to Kim Vukov of Fort Lee, N.J.; the master bedroom to Lewis Okin, who lives in the building; the living room to Sandy Tannenbaum, a broker with the Corcoran Group who came through with clients; and hallway storage space to Al Schmidt of Fort Lee.
SUNDAY after Sunday, a ritual is repeated throughout Manhattan and other parts of the city: Owner of a property for sale straightens up and clears out for a couple of hours. Broker comes in, tidies up some more. At scheduled time, the door opens and an urban apartment is transformed into the residential equivalent of a suburban mall, serious shoppers mingling with those who are just looking, all of them out enjoying a great American weekend activity.
As a ritual, the open house endures. As a sales tool, however, the open house is finding its relevance under attack at a time when ever-more-sophisticated online real estate sites tell buyers much of what they need to know. In a 2009 National Association of Realtors survey, 46 percent of homebuyers said they used open houses as a resource, but only 12 percent reported buying a property as the result of one.
Yet in Manhattan’s compact market, where buyers can sample the spectrum of properties for sale and still have time for Sunday brunch, open houses not only offer a flung-wide-open window onto how others live, but also remain a vital part of the home-buying experience.
Pamela Liebman, the president and chief executive of the Corcoran Group in New York, said about 20 percent of people who bought a home listed with her company initially saw it at an open house.
For buyers and sellers, the open house is an awkward first date that could bloom into a more lasting relationship — and a signed contract. Yet by many accounts, the perusal often leads to little but grief for sellers, who may return to find scuff marks on the wall, muddy carpets or even missing tableware.
Basking in the terrace sunlight at a recent open house on West 90th Street, one woman said she had been to more than 100 open houses over several months, though she loved her downtown rental with a river view. “I feel like we’re part of this legion of people who wander,” she said. “We walk in, look around. I’ve learned a lot about interior decorating.”
Asked for her name, the woman recoiled. “Oh, I wouldn’t want anyone to know,” she said.
Brokers accept the fact that many visitors are just looking. At the open house on West 90th Street, Ann Cutbill Lenane, an executive vice president of Prudential Douglas Elliman, greeted several people as if they were old neighborhood acquaintances.
“I’ve seen some of these same people for years,” Ms. Lenane said.
It was early afternoon, and about 60 people had turned out for Ms. Lenane’s showing of a $1.395 million penthouse with three bedrooms and two outdoor spaces. Several visitors were building residents — apparent to Ms. Lenane by their jacketless dress on a pleasant but breezy Sunday. A few others appeared to be open-house hobbyists.
Ms. Lenane doesn’t mind catering to the curious and the covert. “Listen,” she said, “if people have nothing better to do than wander in on a Sunday afternoon, I’m happy to entertain them.”
Some buildings ban open houses altogether, allowing showings only by appointment, to avoid the specter of strangers roaming unattended. Some critics of open houses believe they are of little value beyond providing brokers with a means of soliciting new clients.
Indeed, Ms. Lenane’s first question to those who step into an apartment she is showing is “Are you working with a broker?” But she said that attracting business — while it occasionally happens — was not her primary goal.
“I’m a single mother,” Ms. Lenane said. “Would I rather be with my kids right now? Of course I would. But I work 48 out of 52 Sundays a year because I have to.”
Although an open house may not produce an offer, it can accelerate the process of lowering the price. “When I’m able to tell a seller that 100 people were here to see their apartment and no one bid,” Ms. Lenane said, “it gives me more credibility.”
That wasn’t necessary with the penthouse, which after two open houses went into contract above the asking price, she said.
Many sellers are understandably nervous about opening up an apartment to the public. Word of theft or damage travels fast. In 2007, two women were arrested for posing as buyers at several high-end apartments from which they stole jewelry, a fur coat and other items.
Showing a two-bedroom apartment on West 74th Street, Madeleine Dale, an associate broker and senior vice president of Halstead Property, had to twist the owner’s arm to hold open houses.
“I had to have two assistants with me at all times and cameras installed,” Ms. Dale said. “They didn’t want children to touch their newborn’s toys. Everyone had to take off their shoes.”
She sighed and added, “It took a lot of effort.”
Finally, four months after the apartment went on the market the family moved out, and potential buyers no longer had to tiptoe around.
Ms. Dale acknowledges that open houses don’t always draw the totally sincere. “There are perpetual lookers, nosey people, and they walk in like they own the place.” But like Ms. Lenane, she welcomes everyone because, she said, “you never know who they know.”
Sometimes, the same person can be both browser and buyer. At Ms. Lenane’s penthouse showing, Barbara Adler was out looking for her perfect space — two bedrooms, outdoor space and views, a bathroom with light, priced just right and in need of remodeling to satiate her appetite for decorating.
“I work at home, so I spend a lot of time in my apartment,” said Ms. Adler, 66, the executive director of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District. She has given herself a year to house hunt while she rents on Broadway, and has seen approximately 50 apartments in about three months.
“She’s been in every building on the Upper West Side,” said her friend Ray Pennotti, while Ms. Adler laughed and admitted that she was not finding her search particularly enjoyable.
“In fact, I find it anxiety-producing,” she said. “I always feel as if I’m running out of time.”
After 18 years in the business, Geri Epstein, an executive vice president of Bellmarc Realty, says she can tell which open house attendees are potential deal-makers from the questions that they ask. For example, serious shoppers want to know exact room dimensions and are curious about a building’s financials and rules. Ms. Epstein estimates that about half the people who drop by open houses are the kind who might make an offer.
Yogi Trivedi is the motivated sort of buyer. Recently, accompanied by his broker, he crammed eight open houses into two hours.
“It’s the American dream, played out in front of you,” Dr. Trivedi said at one of his stops, an open house conducted by Ms. Epstein for a $975,000 one-bedroom apartment with a home office on East 54th Street. Dr. Trivedi, 33, a physician who lives in Delaware, said he was a fan of “House Hunters,” the HGTV show in which buyers offer critiques of properties for sale.
But he was not out to entertain himself; he had been looking for five months for an investment property.
Ms. Epstein was showing several apartments in the East 54th Street building. It was a gusty, rainy Sunday and traffic was slow. Much of the time she sat in the lobby, waiting and lamenting that the forecast had called for little more than a drizzle.
By the time Ely and Barbara Blanco arrived at the building, they were on their seventh open house in two hours. The quest: a larger apartment than the one they bought several months ago after moving to Manhattan from Melville, N.Y. The Blancos, both accountants, said they enjoyed looking at homes belonging to others. But they also feel they are educating themselves about what for most people is their most significant investment.
“The open house gives you an opportunity to explore on your own and to really get a feel for the community,” Mr. Blanco said.
When they walked from East 54th Street to another open house at Park Avenue and 81st Street, Mrs. Blanco was reminded of how quickly life can change in Manhattan. They shared an elevator with a tenant who looked familiar and who might even have been famous.
“But it felt like a different world — people there looked at us funny and didn’t dress like us,” Mrs. Blanco said, referring to the jeans and sneakers that she and her husband were wearing. “Was it for us? No. But it was fun to look.”
Back on the Upper West Side, Sara and Jamie Garretson stopped on West 74th Street, at an open house for a $1.25 million two-bedroom that Ms. Lenane showed before the penthouse on West 90th. Having already accepted an offer on their much larger Central Park West apartment, the Garretsons were making a second visit.
“We’re downsizing, in major hunt mode,” explained Mr. Garretson, an architect, who said he was in his late 60s.
The couple had been to 15 open houses the previous weekend and had another 15 lined up. They wound up bidding successfully on the two-bedroom, but not until they had looked at the others on their list.
“With the open house, you don’t have to feel embarrassed or committed if it doesn’t feel right,” Mr. Garretson said. “You can walk in and walk out. Then you stop in at Starbucks or check out the flea market. You get some exercise.”
With his wife nodding in agreement, he added: “It’s really interesting to see how people live. We might even keep doing it.”