Doors Wide Open

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, October 7, 2007

THERE ARE FEW PLEASURES IN LIFE MORE SUBLIME THAN THE REAL ESTATE OPEN HOUSE, in which you are permitted to march into a stranger's home, poke around, open drawers, peek into closets, flush toilets, try on clothes and hats and admire yourself in a mirror, and then wander back out to the sidewalk to make the pronouncement for anyone within earshot, "What a dump."

The open house is a ritual of our real estate culture, despite the widely acknowledged fact that it rarely results in an actual sale. Particularly in a down market like the one we're mired in now, an open house can have an atmosphere of desperation. Those people stomping around the house aren't buyers, they're neighbors. They're trying to figure out what their house is worth if this crud pile is going for $650K.

What's amazing is that real estate agents don't seem to mind. Want to track mud through this house I had professionally cleaned on the off chance that someone might buy it? No problem!

The agent is upbeat, sunny, borderline thrilled to have the opportunity to show you, or even your dog, this sparkling little bungalow that with some love and attention might not be a tear-down. Having any live organism walk through the door beats standing alone in an empty and unloved home that, in a just universe, would be swallowed by a sinkhole and ooze completely out of sight.

And who knows, this could be the lucky day. At the very least, the agent has a sign-up sheet and can identify the buyers out there to get a sense of who's authentically in the market. In a business like this, you can't let any opportunity go by. If you're an agent, you're trying to sell a product that is very large, expensive, immobile, and prone to leaks, termites, burst pipes, warpage, sinkage, decay, disintegration and hideous interior decorating, but you must never lose your positive vibe.

Someone will buy it. Someone always does.

But these are definitely dicey times. The market has flipped in the past year or so. Not so long ago, you could put a cardboard box up for sale and get three offers before mid-afternoon. Now there are houses spending weeks, months, even a full year on the market without a contract. Every week, the number of open houses seems to grow. And yet prices really haven't budged much. There still aren't any steals out there. That house off Falls Road in Potomac, the one that was going for $2,399,000; the one with all the mirrors and the pool and the pool house and the weight room and the billiard room that seems to want to be the clubhouse at a country club? It's only $2,310,000 now.

I last participated in the house-buying game in the early 1990s, several booms ago. Back then, you could still get a detached home in the District of Columbia for $250,000 or so. I won't tell you how much I paid for my house, but the sum is what many people now spend on a kitchen renovation.

Thus, when my editor asked me to check out the culture of the open house, my predictable, reflexive reaction, house after house, was astonishment at the prices. Although a man of modest tastes and simple needs, I was unable to find a place I'd be willing to live in that cost less than $4.5 million.

I don't need a castle, just someplace that's comfortable, with a view, and maybe a meadow and a waterfall. There should be a huge iron gate out front, and a couple of stone lions. Also a sign with the name of my estate -- something impressive, like Drumthwicket or Skrotchwallow. Sadly, my tour of open houses indicates that most homes currently available could not plausibly support an inspiring name and can barely justify a street address.

The people who go to open houses have the same basic questions that I did: Can I afford anything on the market? Could I imagine living in anything I could afford?

And finally: Why is it so strangely thrilling to peek into other people's houses?

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