Realtor Patrick Hatfield spent the last weekend in February welcoming strangers into his clients’ Old City townhouse. It was his first open house of the pandemic.

“It feels a little more like normal,” he said, “just without snacks.”

Instead of food, he offered hand sanitizer to guests, who wore masks. Guests took fliers about the property instead of thumbing through thicker shared materials. To the soundtrack of Hatfield’s Spotify playlist, about three dozen groups walked through the house that weekend, a little more than typical before the pandemic.

Hatfield, who is on the Fishtown-based Philly Home Girls team with Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, has been cautious during the pandemic but expects to host more open houses now.

Nosy neighbors wanting to see inside a home for sale. Couples looking for something to do on a weekend. Maybe even some potential buyers. More of these can be spotted mingling at open houses, especially as the busy spring housing market begins and COVID-19 cases drop.

At the start of the pandemic, open houses in Pennsylvania stopped when the state halted many in-person real estate activities. Their numbers stayed lower than usual in 2020. Open houses returned a bit last year, but not to the same level as in 2019, according to the multiple listing service Bright MLS.

In the Philadelphia metropolitan area, two-thirds of homes listed for sale through Bright MLS included open houses in 2019. That share dipped to about one-third in 2020. Last year, about half of listings included open houses. (Agents are not required to submit information about open houses.)

Open houses proved less necessary than in previous years in the age of virtual tours, pandemic fears, and quickly selling homes. But tented directional signs and the curious neighbors they attract aren’t going away.

Fewer open houses than before the pandemic

Attending an open house or private showing used to be the only way to examine the interior of a home beyond carefully angled, static pictures. But during the pandemic, more real estate agents have embraced virtual and 3D tours.

Although fewer buyers now are purchasing homes solely off these types of tours, they can still use them to eliminate options and cut down on the number of trips to potential homes.

Angela Barnshaw, a third-generation real estate agent, broke from the open-house tradition a decade ago when she started Agent06, based in Haddonfield.

“The elimination of the open house is actually part of how we started,” said Barnshaw, chief executive officer and broker of record at the concierge real estate agency that primarily serves Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties.

» READ MORE: Real estate agents adapt to keep selling houses during the coronavirus pandemic (March 2020)

She said real estate TV shows have convinced people that property owners get a handful of offers just from the open house. At the beginning of her roughly 15-year career in real estate, Barnshaw attended and ran many.

“Out of thousands of people and what felt like a thousand open houses, I was like, ‘This is not working. There hasn’t been one sale because of an open house,’” she said.

One of her early clients was a pregnant woman with a toddler who spent a cold day at the playground asking when she could go back home. One person had been to the open house. Barnshaw felt awful.

She calls the open house “a completely unnecessary silliness” that most times benefits only agents looking for additional clients. Without precautions, open houses also can endanger real estate agents and expose homeowners to theft. Her clients don’t miss open houses, she said, and the pandemic has made more sellers wary of them.

“Motivated, qualified buyers come by appointment,” Barnshaw said.

In the current market, with inadequate housing supply and continued strong competition among potential buyers, most sellers don’t have to take extra steps if they don’t want to — and that includes hosting open houses.

» READ MORE: 10 Open House Red Flags Before Buying a Home

“It’s still such a seller-driven market that I don’t know that they’re as necessary as they were three years ago,” said Natalie McGee, an agent with Chester County-based Styer Real Estate and a staging specialist. “We used to do open houses to generate a buzz and get people into the house to set it apart from other listings, but that’s just not the case right now.”

McGee said she hasn’t had open houses in 90% of her listings. In this market, her clients haven’t needed them, because houses have been selling within a few days.

“Until we have inventory, I think an open house is just going to be a preferential thing,” she said. “How do people feel in a post-COVID world about hosting a lot of people in their houses?”

Still, open houses aren’t going away

With COVID-19 cases dropping and temperatures rising, “I definitely think that we are seeing an increase in open houses,” McGee said.

Real estate agents market a property that has an open house even more than an everyday listing, because they’re trying to attract foot traffic and get more potential buyers to see the property, she said. Open houses can be a good option when a property is not selling.

“It’s definitely beneficial if you have a property that’s a special property or a unique property or in a less traveled area,” McGee said.

Zakiya Eleby, a real estate agent at Realty Mark based in King of Prussia, said something might come of an open house later — whether that’s a future client for an agent or a better idea of preferences for buyers. First-time home buyers may wander in to open houses to see what $300,000 buys.

“Some people are just starting the buyer process, and they’re just trying to get a feel of what they like and what they don’t like,” Eleby said.

Every open house attracts some “Sunday lookiloos” who wander in because they’re curious, said Jacob Markovitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors and an associate broker at Elfant Wissahickon Realtors. But open house visitors also include serious buyers who have been sent by or come with their real estate agent or who follow open house schedules.

Because open houses serve a range of purposes, they’ll probably always have a place in the market, Markovitz said. And they will continue to evolve, he said. QR codes have replaced some sign-in sheets, and masks sometimes are required along with shoe covers. Limits on numbers of people allowed inside a home — a pandemic precaution — may continue after the pandemic ends, so guests have more room and agents can spend more time with potential buyers.

Even in a competitive market, sellers may choose to host an open house or two rather than keep their home pristine during a week of showings.

“You can ideally just knock it out in a weekend,” said Markovitz, who focuses on Center City and Northwest Philadelphia.

Open houses on the whole have become more deliberate in a time of online home shopping and email alerts, he said. “The old school, ‘I saw the balloons and a directional sign’” has been replaced by “Zillow told me there was an open house today, and I wanted to see it,” he said.

“Today’s buyers are more efficient on some level than the buyers of yesteryear,” Markovitz said, “where ‘It’s Sunday. Let’s see if there are any open houses in the neighborhood.’”