As winter ends, open-house season is just beginning. Realtors know you’ll be wowed by granite counters and outdoor kitchens, but savvy home buyers know how to look for what really matters.

So how can you get the most out of your 30-minute wander around a home? Use these insider tricks to assess whether a house is all it’s cracked up to be.

Look for any deal-breakers right up front — even if you’re planning to have an inspection.


    Those appliances or counters might look brand new, but it could be because of a ton of scrubbing. “The spotless living room and bedroom may be so uncluttered because most of the owner’s belongings were already moved to a storage unit, not because there is loads of storage,” says Brendan O'Donnell with Center Coast Realty in Chicago.

    O’Donnell recommends that you ask to see a list of recent improvements and check the age of appliances, garage doors, counters and more. And while you’re wandering around, check that there's plenty of space to store all your belongings. “Open the cupboards, drawers and closets to see if they indeed have ample room.”


    Does the house look as though it’s straight out of a glossy magazine? Chances are good that it was styled as tightly as a high-fashion shoot. But the goal is not always merely to help a potential buyer picture themselves in the “home sweet home.”

    Sometimes that artful arranging is actually designed to hide something that the seller doesn't want buyers to see, O'Donnell warns. For example, maybe the floors are scratched or discolored in a certain area, and the throw rug is strategically placed to cover the part of the hardwood that needs to be refinished. Or, the heavy curtains might be masking an eyesore on the other side of the fence.

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    While you’re not going to want to engage in any heavy furniture-moving during an open house, don’t hesitate to peek behind curtains and under area rugs to see what’s beyond the fine furnishings. “Don’t let graceful staging blind you to potential issues,” he says. “Make sure you're walking through with an objective perspective and a keen eye for details that might look off.”

    Another hazard of being blinded by the staging is that the design choices can distract you from the bigger picture, adds agent Maggie Fanney of Triplemint in New York City. “Focus on the bones, the views and the layout, and ask yourself, ‘Can I see myself living there?’" With or without the expensive furnishings and fancy throw pillows, that is.


    It’s smart to look for any deal-breakers right up front before you fall in love with the house — even if you’re planning to have an inspection — and structural issues are a biggie.

    Play detective: While hairline cracks are to be expected, large gaps or cracks above window frames could indicate a foundation issue. Another tip-off? Uneven floors. One sneaky way to check is to roll a marble on the floor to see if it’s level.


    Water damage can lead to mold, which can be costly and invasive to repair, says Fanney.

    While much of the damage could be inside the walls, she suggests looking for soft spots or discoloration on the interior and exterior of the house, peeling paint and sagging walls and ceilings. Another telltale sign could be small mold spots inside the bathroom cabinets around the water pipes and the drains.


    Open houses might be a din of other potential home buyers wandering through and opening and closing closets and doors. And that can mask a very important and often-overlooked drawback of a house — the outside noise level. “Whether it’s street and highway sounds or nearby train tracks, noise levels could impact your experience living in the home or even your ability to sell the property down the road,” says O'Donnell.

    Tune in to ambient notices that might be hard to hear over all the conversations and other open house hubbub. “Don’t be afraid to stay as long as you need to scope out the noise situation,” he advises.

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