NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — The snow is finally gone, daffodils are blooming and tree buds are about to burst — spring is finally here. Which means it time for a bumper crop of open houses, an opportunity for buyers — and sellers too — to assess the market first-hand.

Sellers? Yes. Though most sellers don't think of it, exploring open houses provides a chance to see how your home compares. If most homes for sale are freshly painted and tidy, you can bet you'll have a tough time competing with a dingy interior filled with clutter.

For a buyer, the open house is an easy way to look at a half-dozen properties on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon without all the hassle of making appointments and trucking around with a real estate agent. So how do you get the most out of it ?

Clearly it makes sense to look at homes you might buy — ones in your price range, with the correct location and so forth. But because they are so easy to attend, open houses offer a chance to test your criteria, so you might look at some homes that are a little cheaper or more expensive than you'd had in mind. Look at some in neighborhoods that might not be the first to come to mind, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area.

Gather brochures, even for homes that don't interest you. Your collection will help you assess prices and other terms as you zero in on properties that really appeal to you.

Typically, the seller's agent hosts the open house and the seller is usually not there, allowing for some candid conversation. Even if you're not interested in the home you're visiting, chat up the agent. He or she may have tips on the neighborhood or other homes on the market or expected to be.

And, of course, open houses are a good opportunity for buyer or seller to look for an agent . Ask how long the agent has been in the business and worked that community, and whether he or she works at it full time. Say you'd like some references before agreeing to have the agent represent you, and see what the reaction is.

Then pump the agent for information on the home and neighborhood. Even if the property doesn't interest you, this is a chance to test the agent's knowledge and professionalism. It's a red flag if he or she has to refer to the listing sheet to answer every question; a good agent has answers at the tip of the tongue.

HSH.com, the mortgage-data and housing-market firm, notes there are some dos and don'ts in attending an open house.

It's OK to open closet doors and look around, but not to snoop. No pawing through the medicine cabinet, for instance. (Warning to sellers: HSH says realtors report that drug users sometimes pose as buyers to get access to prescription meds.)