A cornerstone of the real estate industry, the open house has evolved quite a bit since the practice first began in the 1910s. According to a timeline of the sales tool's evolution at Realtor.com, open houses evolved out of a "Wild West" period of property selling, when laws, licenses and exclusive contracts had yet to be firmly established, and dishonest brokers, or "curbstoners," looked to flip homes and make fast cash. Yards would be littered with dozens of signs representing competing salesman. During those simpler, pre-Zillow days, agents would stay parked at a single home every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for "open inspections," showing off modern marvels such as electric lighting and new kitchen layouts to potential buyers. While it helped move homes, it limited realtors to a portfolio of one property. Clearly, things needed to evolve.
A slow evolution between the wars set the stage for realtors to handle what would become a housing boom after WWII. First, the idea of staged homes spread across the country, potentially introduced by a broker in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and real estate agencies began growing and taking on multiple agents. In the '40s and '50s, as the market exploded, the idea of a 12-hour open inspection turned into shorter open houses on Sundays, chosen because state laws forbidding transaction on that day made it possible to focus on selling and then finish paperwork during the week.
The first recorded instance of using incentives comes from 1952, when a Dallas agent selling Howdy Howard's Holiday Homes offered free soft drinks to anyone taking a walk-through, and a Cadillac to the eventual buyer. While Coca-Cola doesn't have the draw it once did, and incentives may have become more elaborate, the open house hasn't changed dramatically since then. Even in the era of the MLS and online searches, 44% of buyers took advantage of open houses to find their new home.
· A Brief History of Opening Our Homes to Total Strangers (aka the Open House) [Realtor.com]
·House of the Day archives [Curbed]