Are Vacant Showings Better?

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Having one of your properties sit vacant is one of the biggest money sucking problems a real estate investor can face. As we struggled to rent one of our latest properties out, we started to really understand the big benefit of doing a tenant first rent to own strategy like I discussed a few weeks ago. That big benefit is not having to worry that the property you just bought might have to sit vacant for awhile while you find it’s future residents.

With vacancy prevention in mind, we have been showing our properties before we actually own them. We put it in the purchase and sale agreement that the sellers will allow us to show the home three times – each time for 90 minutes – for the purposes of finding tenants. We only show the homes if we think they look presentable because we want to attract good tenants, but we will show them occupied.

As long as the property is clean, in good condition and doesn’t smell badly, I find that it is usually ok to find tenants with the property occupied. I will never show a property that is beat up, really messy or stinky because that sort of situation attracts the wrong kind of tenants.

But even if a place looks good occupied, I am starting to think that showing a property occupied is not the way to find good tenant buyers.

With lease options (rent to owns) there is a greater emotional attachment to the home. There is also a higher standard the home must meet in order to be something they actually want to work towards owning. So when it comes to finding tenant buyers I am starting to think that vacant is better. It seems like even though I can see how amazing a house is, there are just too many issues that are hard to see past when someone else’s stuff is in the way. And – what we’re finding – is that when you advertise it too much before you actually own it, by the time it is vacant you have no momentum left in your advertising to get new interest in the place.

But I don’t have enough evidence to decide yet and I really hate to have vacant properties so I would love to hear what my fellow investors here at Bigger Pockets have to say about this. But first, let me recap how things have been going since we started to focus on rent to own properties late last year:

First property we filled as a rent to own.

It was clean, cozy and showed pretty well with the owners belongings in there. He was a single guy and didn’t have a lot of stuff. We showed it to six different people and from those people we found a very happy couple that fit our program perfectly. They pretty much moved in right after we took possession, leaving the home vacant for only a week or so.

Our Second Property:

Now this one was a little trickier. It’s a gorgeous character home with ocean views. I could see it’s charm and appeal but it did need some work. We had three open houses and had 15 or so different groups of people come through the place. We didn’t have anybody interested enough to even fill out an application.

We took possession at noon on a Saturday and had the house filled with carpenters, painters, and other labourers working to get it cleaned up and fixed up. On Sunday afternoon a couple came by to take a look at it, and completed an application on the spot. The final work was completed on Wednesday. The carpet cleaning company rolled out on Thursday at noon, and their moving truck rolled in Thursday at 12:01 pm.

It took the property being vacant and for work to be in progress for someone else to see just how great this home was. But that was all it took.

The Third Property:

This one is in an area that EVERYONE seems to want to live in. And, it has a basement suite. Those two factors combined to make it a home that we barely even had to show to get it filled. And honestly it did not look good when we showed it and the people still grabbed it quickly. I guess this really is an example of just how critical location, location, location is! Of all the homes this one was the least attractive and needs the most amount of work in my opinion yet we could have rented it sight unseen because there was THAT much demand.

The Fourth Property:

This is the one we’re stuck on … we had a super long closing on it and probably started advertising it too early. We had it under contract in February but didn’t close on it until June 1st. We started advertising it in early March and showed it three times to about 10 different groups total and never even had anyone complete an application.

We had a lot of people interested in it, because it’s in a very convenient location. And a lot of people love the fact that it’s only four years old, but until it was vacant we didn’t even get an application.

Looking back … maybe it was the way the home was decorated for a retired couple?

Or maybe the furniture made the rooms look too small?

I’m not sure … all I know is that since we took possession and painted it, we’ve had applications and we’ve had very positive interest … but we still haven’t had anyone sign on the dotted line.

After Painting

Now that it’s vacant – there’s a dramatic difference in the results but we have no momentum behind our ads. I even tried pulling everything down for a week and relaunching … but that didn’t seem to fool anyone! We have had less response to the property in the last 2 weeks then I had in the first 2 days when I initially posted it.

So with the next couple of properties we’ve got coming up I’m wondering if we should even show them before we have possession of them. I hate to guarantee myself a vacancy but I also don’t want to end up with a great property that everyone knows has been on the market for nearly 4 months … wondering what’s wrong with it or worse, what’s wrong with our rent to own program!

About Author

Buy and hold real estate investing in Canada since 2001, Julie Broad is now a full time real estate investor and investing educator.


  1. I think this is a psychology question. Something of which I know nothing, but have become increasingly more interested in, because of my rentals. There are a whole series of questions and problems that a potential tenant needs to answer for themselves, when looking for potential homes. They are not always evident to us and are not easily answered by us.

    If anything, they often baffle us. Sometimes, a staged unit is better than a previous owner’s or tenant’s furniture. Sometimes being empty is better. As you say, these factors may trump the location.

    I like to show units with as little furniture as possible. This is because all of my units are small and it’s easier to see the space without the added furniture.

    Good luck and let us know if you come to a conclusion.

    • Thanks for your comment Stacey. I was at the local real estate club meeting last night and we were talking about this. Some of the folks in the room who’ve either been realtors or are currently real estate agents said that my vacant showing discovery surprised them because they felt homes always showed better with some furniture in them (Staged). I’m not really sure – I think you’re right – it’s really hard to know in every case what is getting someone to take action (or keeping them from taking action!).

      I have a feeling I won’t reach a firm conclusion but I know I will be spending less time and effort showing the homes while someone else lives there.

      Thanks for your comment and your thoughts.

  2. Hey Julie, I enjoyed this post, thanks! Whether a property is vacant or furnished, it requires some level of imagination by those who are trying to figure out whether they want to live there (and how their stuff fits in). To me, if the home already is furnished but looks really polished, it can work in your favor with tenant buyers (think how awesome staging works with rehabbers and homeowners who are looking to sell during tough buyers markets)…but in the case of your fourth property, I think vacant is better because of the current decor 🙂

    • 🙂 I agree about the current decor but I never really thought much of it at the time. The place was still a good looking home. And I know if it was just a regular rental (without the option agreement where someone is committing themselves to buying it) we wouldn’t have had a problem with that furniture. But … now that it’s vacant and painted we’ve taken several applications. We’re just waiting to get the final paperwork signed up!!! Thanks Shae!

  3. Great article, Julie! It’s weird because there have been so many real estate agents that have told me how hard it is to sell a vacant property vs an occupied one.

    In my experience in mobile homes, I’ve found it extremely difficult to show homes when they are occupied. I’ve done it in the past and it has not yielded the best results. For me, I think some folks cannot see beyond what they see. If a home has a certain style to it on the inside when it’s occupied, that is what prospective buyers will see. If it matches their style, it’s a good thing. But, if it does not (which in my experience usually is not) then it could be problematic.

    And, also there’s the issue I’ve faced of trying to show the home occupied and the sellers not being as cooperative to show the home – this happened on my first mobile home deal. The sellers were busy packing and did not want people going in tramping through their home while they were packing – it became a bit problematic.

    I guess it can be different for each situation – it’s interesting to see what worked/ what different worked for each of your properties. It’s great to see the pics, thanks for sharing!

  4. Hey Rachel – You bring up a really important point about sellers being cooperative! We’ve been pretty fortunate to have pretty good rapport with the sellers we’re working with and the showings have gone fairly well … but the first showing we did with this property that is still vacant (although we have a signed and approved application so we just need a signed lease …. getting there!!! YEAH!!!) was AWKWARD. The seller misunderstood that we were going to hold an open house and just thought we were bringing one person through. She was cooking pot roast and was SO MAD we were intruding on her for a full 90 minutes (even though that was what was in the contract she just thought that was a window of time when we should up). Anyway – everyone who came by that day was probably VERY uncomfortable because the seller was there in one room, grouchy and sending out bad negative vibes. Needless to say nobody was remotely interested in the home that day …

    As always – great comment!! Thanks Rachel.

  5. As someone who has staged her own home(s) three times, they did sell quickly, often the buyer bought many of my pictures, accessories, and of course all of the lush healthy potted plants simply because I had used my artistic touch in so many areas to keep it simple and clean and show well. I, for one, would rather see an empty property rather than one that is cluttered beyond belief or designed “all wrong.” IT IS difficult to see beyond someone Else’s great idea of what looks good to imagine how you would do it, if you have an artist’s eye. But hey, that’s just my opinion! Pauline

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