Joe Gast

Monet’s work is prominently displayed in museums around the world. Bob Dylan’s songs can be heard with the click of a button. Cinematic masterpieces such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather are available on DVD. But how do you share your masterpieces with the world? Two words: open house.

“People don’t buy cars without test-driving them,” says Greg Oothoudt, president of Stonehearth Remodeling, in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area. “A lot of remodeling projects are logical, like new windows or a new roof, but so many remodeling jobs are emotional; the [homeowners] don’t need the upgrades but they want the upgrades. People want to see the kind of work you do, and if it lines up with what their dream is, they’re more likely to hire you.”

Open houses can also be a very cost-effective form of advertising, according to Rob Carlisle, president of Carlisle Classic Homes, in Seattle. “We’ve done three open houses in the last three years and got several strong leads and landed work in excess of half a million dollars,” he says. “Also, we still have people reaching out to us from the home tour we did three years ago. Someone walking through the project gets a great lasting impression about the quality of your work, the attention to detail, and your care in showing someone’s home.”

Best Pick

Whether it’s a stand-alone open house or part of an annual “tour of homes,” you have to pick the appropriate home to show off your work. You should make your decision based on a couple of factors, according to Oothoudt. Pick a home in a neighborhood where you’re looking to do more work; you’ll get your fair share of lookie-loos and tire-kickers, but you’ll also get potential leads comparable to your current clients.

Second, you want to host where you can show off your company’s “sweet spot” — the type of projects with which you’ve had the most success.

Carlisle would even take that a step further and say that you should host an open house of a project that you actually enjoyed doing. If you had a difficult relationship with the client, chances are an open house won’t help. “Highlight those projects that were profitable for you,” he says. “You tend to bring in what you send out in this world.”

John Davies, director of design at Marrokal Design & Remodeling, in San Diego, says that remodelers should be judicious in choosing the right house. “For every home we have ever had on a tour, we generate a large handful of leads and statistically between one and four subsequent jobs,” he says. “Several times those jobs end up on a tour the next year. The client/tour connection begins to develop as a chain of clients happy to refer your work and public recognition of your firm through repetitive tours.”

Be Our Guest

Joe Gast

Once you’ve picked the right home, you need to invite the right guests. According to Davies, one option is to leave it up to your clients. “A simple, cost-effective, and fun idea is to ask your clients to invite anyone they wish to their home for a wine and cheese party,” he says. “One or two [staff] from your company arrive early with a case of wine and various cheeses. The clients get to have a little party to show off their new digs and you are delivered prospective clients that are nearly always pre-qualified. Folks tend to socialize within their own economic strata.” Davies added that there are certainly variations on this theme, such as hosting a dessert and coffee party or a brunch on a Sunday.

Carlisle recommends that you think personal and local. “In today’s impersonal world, you will do well to just print out a few hundred simple door hangers inviting the neighbors and then go from house to house and invite them,” he says. “I believe it is safe to say that if you want more jobs in that neighborhood you should simply talk to the neighbors.”

Think past clients and current prospects, Carlisle adds. “Probably your best lead source is your current client base and the current prospects. Reaching out to them lets them know you still care about them and that you are there to take care of their needs or just to catch up and get some ideas for their home.”

An added benefit of both these methods is that your clients are inviting friends, co-workers, and family members to share in their excitement over their new-and-improved home while delivering to you prospective clients who are generally within the same socio-economic category. Also, never underestimate a neighbor’s need to “keep up with Joneses” when they see that shiny new upgraded kitchen or bathroom.

Prices May Vary

Joe Gast

Depending on what you offer the guests of an open house — champagne versus Fresca, for example — will often determine your costs, but there are a variety of factors to take into consideration.

Oothoudt says that much of the cost will depend on the neighborhood and who the prospective clients are. “If we’re going to get a roomful of people who have the time, desire, and money to buy $100,000 kitchens, then we’ll spend more time and money on that open house,” he says. “But if we have a location where we might get some $35,000 jobs, it could be Girl Scout cookies and hot coffee.”

Be sure not to be too overindulgent in your hosting duties. While having a chef on site heating up hors d’oeuvres will be a big hit for clients looking to spend more than $100,000, it might turn off potential customers who are looking for a basic $15,000 bathroom remodel. “‘If you’re doing all this, you must be too expensive,’ is what the client will think,” Oothoudt says. “You have to be careful and recognize your audience and appeal to their senses.”

Never Answer This Question: “How much does a project like this cost?”

No matter what you say, the only thing the potential client will remember is that number. “And no matter how much they say they won’t judge you by it, they’ll judge you by it,” says Greg Oothoudt of Stonehearth Remodeling, adding that he uses REMODELING’s Cost vs. Value Report  to show the impact that specific remodeling jobs have on a home.

So how do you respond to that question? “We say that according to the Cost vs. Value Report in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, this type of remodel can be between $7,500 and $100,000. [We then ask,] ‘Is your investment within that range?’ If it is, we move forward.”

Oothoudt also never reveals a project’s costs, out of respect for the client’s privacy. But rather than seeming evasive, he does give a price range — again from the Cost vs. Value Report — that satisfies the vast majority of people.

—Mark A. Newman, senior editor, REMODELING.