Come on in, the house is open to everyone

With sales slowing this summer, estate agents are trying to generate extra interest by holding multiple viewings. Belinda Archer reports
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The property market is as flat as a millpond. For those mad enough to be even considering selling, the competition is stiff, and warnings grim about the usual summer slump lasting until beyond the autumn. According to the property website Rightmove, the number of homes sold in 2005 is likely to be the lowest for more than a decade, with turnover 40 per cent down on 2004.

No surprise, then, that agents and vendors are experimenting with a variety of ways to shift homes, and one such approach is the open-house event, where houses are opened up for multiple viewings on a specific date.

London-based estate agents Foxtons has just launched such a scheme for property viewing on Sundays, while several other agents, including Hamptons International, have been testing the sales method, now selling around two properties a month this way through its Hampstead office alone.

But what are the advantages of such a strategy? Surely it can only work with property that is likely to generate a large amount of interest in the first place? And what about neighbours who just fancy a nose around?

John Ennis, general manager of Foxtons South Kensington, says: "It can work for any property, from freehold houses to flats. It is more about the vendor's position - if they have children and don't want to have to keep on tidying up for individual visits, or if they are letting the property and there is a problem gaining regular access."

Stephen Collins, managing director of Guildford agents Burns & Webber, adds: "Open viewings used to be just held for properties that were ramshackle or derelict. We'd open for two hours because we expected so many viewings, so it was easier than holding lots of separate viewings. Now, however, we are running open days more for properties that are occupied and in good condition. They have a huge convenience factor for both the buyer and seller."

Open viewings particularly suit the busy vendor, agents say, because they only need to clear up and dress the house with fresh flowers and have the coffee brewing once. They also suit the seller because they often lead to a quick sale by creating competition.

Adam Stackhouse, a manager at Hamptons International, says: "It's good for the vendor because it can increase a sense of urgency and create an almost auctionesque atmosphere. We will often do it where there is a lot of interest in a house but no one is coming forward with an offer. It also suits the buyer because the whole family can come along on a Saturday morning and have a look."

Some agents are starting to structure the events so that huge, uncontrolled numbers of viewers are not aimlessly rambling around a property at the same time. They book them in for 10-minute slots, so there is overlap but it is controlled and security is not an issue.

The open viewing is usually promoted via ads in the local press or leaflet drops in the area. A board is also often planted outside and an agent placed on the doorstep on the day to take names and addresses and escort the viewers round.

Ken Mead, area manager of Clarke Gammon Wellers in Surrey which sells 5 to 10 per cent of its properties via open viewings, says: "Our ad asks people to ring to say they are going and this gives us the opportunity to take their contact details. It is a good way of sifting out nutters."

The sort of buyers attracted to open-house events might range from regular owner-occupiers to developers looking for a quick return on rapidly converted property. Recent properties sold this way have included a 1930s home that hadn't been touched for 30 years, a Grade-II listed one-bedroom house and a fully modernised flat.

But what about the nosy neighbours? Aren't they a problem? Stackhouse responds that casual viewers can be converted: "Out of the last six open-house sales we have had, two have been to people in the same street who were not initially that serious about moving."

Foxtons' Ennis says: "In the US, South Africa and Australia up to 50 per cent of homes are sold this way, and while it will take many months for the UK to get there, it is definitely gathering momentum."

Foxtons is holding an open house on a luxury two-bedroom ground-floor flat in Hyde Park Gardens, London W2, on 17 July at 11am. Price is £1.1m. Call 0800 138 60 60 to book