An open house is not a home inspection -- it's an opportunity for a first look at a potential new home just to see if it's right for you and your family. Is the layout right? Are the appliances new? Can you see your family living here? Still, it also makes sense to peer a little closer. Your time is valuable, and it doesn't make much sense to add a home to your "Second Look" list if it has significant defects.
So while you're enjoying the smell of fresh baked cookies the Realtor has thoughtfully baked, make sure you aren't overlooking these key issues.
1. The neighborhood
Before you step into the house -- even before you step into the yard -- take a good look at the neighborhood. Be sure to note obvious things like the condition of the neighboring homes and the landscaping. Is the place close to shopping or other amenities? Nearby parks? What about nuisances like major traffic arteries or railroad tracks? When you buy a home you're also buying into a neighborhood.
For other neighborhood details, such as crime rates or the quality of the nearby schools, visit sites such as Homefacts.com or NeighborhoodScout.com.
2. The landscaping and exterior
Most sellers will spend some time and effort giving the yard curb appeal -- pruning shrubs, planting fresh flowers and pulling weeds. Look a little closer for signs of care -- or lack of it. Are the trees well-maintained and healthy looking, or will that oak tree limb near the driveway soon come crashing down? If there's a fence, what kind of shape is it in? What about the hardscape like concrete walkways and patios? Defects here may affect your offer (or you'll have to fix them yourself later), but they may also indicate maintenance habits throughout the rest of the home.
While you're outside, look over the building's exterior. You aren't conducting a full-fledged home inspection (that comes later), but you can observe the condition of the paint and siding, the eaves and gutters, and the foundation and roof.
3. Structural integrity
Many sellers will hire professional stagers to help show off the home in the best possible light -- which may involve painting the walls, decluttering and positioning furniture to hide flaws and make rooms appear larger. Try to look past all that for obvious signs of structural weakness. Are the floors sagging or slanted? Do the walls have cracks, or if recently painted, signs of patching? How easily do doors and cupboards open and close?
While you are unlikely to uncover significant structural damage during an open house, you can make note of potential problems for the home inspection to come later.
4. The layout
How well will your stuff fit? How well will you fit? An open house is not the time to break out the tape measure and the graph paper (save that for your follow-up private viewing). Still, during the open house try to get a feel for how the space will accommodate you, your family and all your stuff. Check the storage spaces in the kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms -- and the garage, too. Check the closets. Does the layout of rooms fit your lifestyle, or will you have to knock out a wall between the kitchen and the dining room to get the open feel you like?
5. Light, noise and privacy
As you move through the rooms, note the light. Are rooms light and cheery or dark? Will sunshine streaming in windows leave a distracting glare on the TV screen in the family room or the computer screen in the office? Also listen for noise from neighborhood traffic or from the railway that runs along the highway a few miles away.
While looking over the windows to check their age and condition, also look through the windows to see who might be looking back at you.
6. Major systems
Your home inspector will take a very close look at the home's appliances and major systems, but you can review them during the open house, too. Look over the furnace, the water heater and the air conditioning unit. Make note of the manufacturers' names for later research, or use your smartphone to look them up right on the spot. If the manufacturer has gone out of business, you may have no choice but to replace it later if it fails. The same goes for the appliances.
7. Resale value
You never know what the future holds -- a new job, a new addition to the family, a new hobby -- and the new home that's perfect for you now may not be right for you later. If that time comes, will you be able to sell the home easily and at a price that makes sense? Quirks like a tiny backyard or a bedroom accessible only via the butler's pantry may be acceptable to you, but they may put off other buyers.
As you're thinking about moving into the house, you should also be thinking about moving out of it.
Lars Peterson is an editor for Wise Bread, a personal finance blog that covers financial products and help readers find the best cashback credit cards.