On two Sunday afternoons since late August, nearly 30 strangers have roamed through Fred and Mary Tillman's bedroom.
In the week ahead -- if the Tillmans are lucky -- more potential buyers will wander through their two-story residence in Hampstead, and maybe, just maybe, bite on the $168,500 price tag.
That means the Tillmans have to keep everything looking mint no pans in the country kitchen's sink, no tiny fingerprints on the walls.
4 "It's getting to me," Mary Tillman acknowledges.
But for the Tillmans and many of the more than 14,000 Baltimore-area families trying to sell their homes, holding an open house is viewed as a must.
Even though some Realtors question their value and some sellers cringe at the idea of nosy neighbors peeking into their private lives, the open house remains one of the most visible and popular steps in the selling process.
"I'm pretty big on open houses," said Elaine Northrop, a Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty agent in Howard County.
"It helps to generate traffic and get the house sold," insists Ms. Northrop, who racked up $31 million in sales in 1993, tops among Coldwell Banker's 50,000 agents in North America.
"In the Baltimore market," said Arthur Davis III, president of Chase Fitzgerald, "a great many buyers like being able to get in the car and do tire-kicking."
That view is shared by the management of the Baltimore region's largest independent, locally owned real estate firm, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, which is holding a three-state open house blitz this week.
The 600 homes include a wide range of listings, from Federal Hill townhouses in Baltimore to the Tillmans' North Carroll Farms Colonial to a rehabilitated, 44-year-old Magothy River-front address in Anne Arundel County that's yours for $795,000.
Normally, the firm might have 100 to 150 open houses in Maryland, southern Pennsylvania and Delaware on a typical Sunday, according to Jeanna Tucker, vice president and director of marketing for OPF.
"With [interest] rates as good as they are, we felt it would be a great opportunity to get exposure," said John Evans, executive vice president at OPF.
The OPF "Open House Bonanza Week" has the wrinkle of inviting the public into about 30 of the houses during the week, rather than the Baltimore market's traditional Sunday afternoon hours.
Normally, homes are open during the week only to groups of Realtors -- "brokers opens" in industry jargon -- or to potential buyers accompanied by Realtors. OPF is hoping to attract visits from prospects on their way home from work, for example.
The idea of opening hundreds of listings at once isn't unique, however. Periodically, most brokers engage in open-house hoopla to stir up the market, according to local real estate executives.
According to the National Association of Realtors, prospective homebuyers rely on a combination of sources during their search, which typically takes eight weeks and involves examination of a dozen homes.
The primary source is the Realtor: 83 percent of consumers contacted a real estate agent to help them sort through the listings. But 40 percent of home shoppers also drop in on open houses, according to the NAR.
But these figures don't tell the whole story. Relatively few buyers walk into an open house, become smitten and make an offer on the spot. That's more typical for new homes.
For existing homes, only 4 percent of buyers relied solely on visits to open houses before purchasing, the NAR said. More typically, consumers who visit an open house can't afford it or don't find it to their liking. But for the Realtor sitting in the open house, the afternoon is an opportunity to make contact with homebuyers to take to other listings.
Nevertheless, brokers and real estate agents are divided on the value of open houses, and opinions run strong on both sides.
"You'll hear some Realtors say open houses are no good," said D. R. Grempler, president of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty. "They're lazy, and they don't want to do it. They want weekends off.
"If you want the weekend off, you shouldn't be in the real estate business," he said.
"Most people in real estate realize where they're supposed to be on Sunday," agreed Dottie Wells, manager of OPF's Westminster office.
But Ann Marie Freter, a Realtor with American Properties in Ellicott City, says she doesn't think much of open houses. "They appease some sellers," she says, but pricing and the home's condition are much more important.
"The hard part of being a Realtor is telling sellers the truth and risking not getting the listing," she said. "The open house is a way to say, 'Look, I'm doing something.' "
Marc Witman, an associate broker in Long and Foster's Greenspring office, said many sellers are relieved when he doesn't push for open houses.
"More and more agents are taking the philosophy that that's not the way to get the house sold," he said. "If you want me to read the Sunday paper while your neighbors come through and look in your closets, that's fine with me."
But Cyndi Teeter, a Realtor with ERA Blake Realty in Pasadena, says she finds that sellers become more realistic after hearing feedback the Realtor passes on from unimpressed shoppers. "Something a stranger says is more important than me telling them until I'm blue in the face."
And many Realtors say that they hold open houses because that's what sellers want. "Clients perceive them as being the ultimate," said Joan Russell of Long and Foster's Pasadena and Glen Burnie offices.
That's the view of Mary Tillman, whose brother-in-law, Joe Tillman, an OPF Realtor, is the listing agent. Her family is moving to Virginia because her husband, employed by the Baltimore-based Scotsman Group, is being transferred.
The Tillmans' three-bedroom, 10-year-old Carroll County home is one of the OPF listings that will be shown on a weeknight as well as next Sunday. She and her husband will make sure Hank and Josie's toys are tucked away before the hoped-for visitors show up.
"We'll take the kids to McDonald's," Mrs. Tillman said of the Thursday night showing. "I'm really feeling upbeat about the open house. We're waiting for the right family."