In a booming market, when houses are virtually selling themselves, is there any need for the traditional open house?

Real estate agents are divided on the answer.

"I still think there is a need because the buyer wants to see, feel and touch the house," said Noelle Barbone, office manager for Weichert Realtors in West Chester, Pa. "If a house is on the market long enough, it's an efficient way for a lot of buyers to see it."

John Duffy, owner of Duffy Real Estate in Narberth, Pa., doesn't quite agree.

"We give sellers the choice, and most of them opt not to have an open house," Duffy said. "One issue for the seller is security. They don't know who is going to be looking at it."

The other is that most of the prospective buyers already are represented by agents, have been made aware that the house is on the market and can see it by appointment.

"In the mid-1980s, open houses were wildly successful," Duffy said.

But when the market slowed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the productivity of the open house followed suit, Duffy said.

Yet Duffy agrees with Barbone that open houses are critical to the sale of new houses.

"When I was an agent who handled new construction, I sat open houses every Sunday," Barbone said. "Unlike a resale, which is in the middle of an established neighborhood and living there is easy to visualize, new construction needs to be explained."

Barbone said that the open house provides good exposure for a house that hasn't sold after a week or two in this kind of market, "and is good for buyers to do comparison shopping and to eliminate houses that just don't fit their requirements."

Duffy agreed. "It does give added exposure to houses that don't sell as fast," he said. "And if you have a property that is priced right and you haven't gotten good activity over a two-week or three-week span, an open house might be a good idea.

"But you do get a lot of curiosity-seekers, and the agent has to spend a lot of time sorting out who the real buyers are," Duffy said.

The trouble with open houses always has been that they build false expectations.

Most sellers believe that an open house will snag the buyer who will fall in love with their house and pay whatever they are asking--or more.

However, many real estate agents say that open houses merely attract nosy neighbors, other agents, unqualified buyers and plenty of gawkers attempting to pass a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

Rochelle Tobolsky, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Cherry Hill, N.J., uses open houses as a barometer of opinions about the house.

"If people come in and make negative comments about the house, an agent can use the feedback to work with the seller and make changes that will make the house more salable," Tobolsky said.

One recent Sunday, Grace Leshner, another agent in Tobolsky's office, sat one of Tobolsky's open houses--a listing in Cherry Hill.

"Six people came in to look at the house in those three hours, which is a good turnout by today's standards," Tobolsky said. "There were no negative comments, but no one was ready to make a commitment, either.

"But then, open houses are just another one of our marketing tools," she said. "If I sell three houses in the course of a year through open houses, I consider it worth it."

Tobolsky has a limit of two open houses on any listing during the standard six-month listing contract period. And she does only one or two every month.

"They're very hard work," Tobolsky said.

Sellers view the open house as a sign that their agent is doing his or her job. But sellers, too, can become a bit tired of the practice after a while.

"The agent doesn't want to have the seller around, so the seller has to leave for several hours and find something else to do," Tobolsky said.

When sellers can't leave, Tobolsky will try to make sure that they remain in the background.

As Duffy said, sellers tend to be concerned about security, so Tobolsky makes sure she accompanies every prospect through the house. If two prospects show up at once, she'll ask if they mind looking at it together; if they do, she'll ask one to wait outside while she takes the other around.

"Sometimes, they won't wait, but usually they do," Tobolsky said.

"The only thing that's ever been taken on one of my open houses was a toy," she said. "And the mother of the child who forgot to put the toy back returned it a few hours later."

Some agents try variations on the open house with great success.

Frank and Paula McGuoirk of Re/Max Gold in Media, Pa., conduct what they call "a parade of open houses," in which they meet eight or 10 people on a Saturday afternoon and take them around to look at a group of houses for sale, spending 15 minutes at each one.

If anyone in the group wants to see a house again, the McGuoirks will take them back by appointment.

"We try not to inconvenience anyone, and we don't waste any steps," said Frank McGuoirk. "Anyone who wants to see it has to show up at the same time. And on at least two occasions, we've had two couples bidding for the same houses. And in both cases, it helped push up the sale price over what the seller was asking."

It also helps McGuoirk to maintain regular contact with all his listings.

Chris Ryan, an associate broker with Prudential Fox & Roach, suggested that open houses are a great way to market real estate agents.

"Say someone comes into an open house seriously looking, but the house isn't right for him," Ryan said. "You can then look through your listings and show the person other houses that might be right."

Open houses are a way to sort through inventory and a way to get a sense of the neighborhood, too. Sometimes that can work against the agent.

"An agent I know got a couple to commit to buy at an open house and had the agreement of sale," Tobolsky said.

"The couple then left, but returned five minutes later and tore up the agreement, because the next-door neighbor had started yelling at them for blocking her driveway."