1. ‘Can you tell me more about the house?’
This is a great way to break the ice and get the conversation going with owners or agents on site. “This question may seem vague, but that’s the point,” says Victoria Shtainer, a luxury real estate broker with Compass. Pay attention to what is mentioned first, and—perhaps more important—what is not said, which could be a weakness. For instance, if the real estate agent raves about the home’s location before praising the house itself, that could signal that the place is not in such great shape. So, feel free to probe further with the next question.
2. ‘What shape is this place in? Have there been any recent improvements?’
“It’s good to find out what improvements have been made so that you know they won’t need to be done after you purchase the place,” says Collin Bond, a licensed associate real estate broker with Douglas Elliman. “If you find out that something like the boiler or roof was repaired or replaced recently, then the chances of it being required again soon are small.”
While there really isn’t a way of anticipating when something would break or need to be redone, it’s helpful to rule out what won’t need to be fixed immediately based on what’s been done already.
“Additionally, more information about the condition of the building or anticipated repairs will likely be disclosed during the due diligence process,” says Bond.
3. ‘Has there been a lot of interest in the property?’
This is a nice way of asking how much competition you could face if you make an offer. Just keep in mind that listing agents will typically try to paint a positive picture, so it’s up to you to read between the lines. For instance, if they confidently say they’ve gotten “tons” of interest you may want to follow up with a more pointed question: “Have there been any offers?” But if the agent’s response is more lukewarm (e.g., “there’s been some interest but no offers yet”), that means you have more time—and leverage.
“If the listing agent says things have been slow at the property and the listing has been on the market for an extended time, this may be your opportunity to negotiate a better price,” says Shtainer. “On the other hand, if the agent informs you of high interest, this may be your cue to act more quickly than you might have planned.”
4. ‘When are the sellers looking to close?’
“The two main points that are negotiated during the purchase of a property are the price and the timing of the closing,” says Bond. “You can use this information to tailor your offer to the sellers’ needs.”
In other words: Some sellers may need to move out ASAP if they’ve bought a new home. Or if they’re waiting for new construction to be complete, they might need to cool their heels instead. If you’re flexible on your move-in date, you can highlight this in your offer to make it stand out—and maybe even snag a better deal as a result.
5. ‘How much do utilities usually run?’
This question can be an important part of monthly budgeting.
“All buyers are anxious to know what their monthly costs will be, including utilities,” says Dottie Winhold, a real estate broker in New Jersey. “Principal, interest, maintenance, and taxes are easily available, but utility estimates are only available from the owner.”
This is also a good question if you’re apartment hunting, as utilities could include different things at different places.
“Some buildings include things like electric and gas in the monthly common or maintenance charges, while others require owners to set up accounts with the respective providers to be billed directly through them,” says Shtainer. “Sometimes buyers assume that the monthly charges listed for the unit are all-inclusive, and are surprised after living in the unit for a month to receive a $300 electric bill on top of the monthly charges from the building.”
6. ‘How much traffic can one expect in this area?’
If an open house is on a weekend, which is usually the case, a buyer cannot readily know if there is traffic during the week for commuters going to and from work.
“Ask if this is a street that people use to avoid traffic lights or to get to the schools,” says Winhold. “What it boils down to is safety for the family.”
It’ll also give you an idea of the noise level to expect.
7. ‘What is the neighborhood like?’
Buyers undoubtedly want a neighborhood that fits their current or perceived lifestyle, and Winhold says buyers almost always ask this question at open houses. However, it’s a tricky one for agents to answer because of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or family/economic status.
That being said, this is where it pays to listen to the subtext. If an agent says, “Well, there is a great community playground in this cul-de-sac,” then you can probably deduce that the area is more family-friendly than upscale yuppy. This one will definitely require a little sleuthing, but ultimately it’s worth doing some digging at an open house to make sure what you see is what you get!