While Washington is justly known for its expensive housing -- a situation so bad that even Mayor Marion Barry can't find what he wants for $100,000 -- few people realize that costly homes have created a new real estate diversion: the art of looking.

Looking is an all-American amalgam of sport, entertainment and interior design. To be a looker -- a person who checks out the local housing market with no intention of buying -- just follow the "open" signs on any Sunday afternoon until you come to the home of your choice.

Why? It's fun. Looking is a marvelous source of ideas and tells a lot about the way others live. Unlike other activities, to be a looker you don't need a uniform, equipment or tickets.Weather conditions are irrelevant. There is no danger of pollution. No one cares if you're in shape, employed or indicted.

Ask most people what they are doing at an open house and they'll say, "Just looking." They come, they look, they're friendly, they don't buy. It's okay. Looking is an accepted part of the real-estate game. Lookers, after all, may mention the house to friends who are buying -- it's a good form of advertising. Or, lookers may be getting a general idea of the housing market before they put their home up for sale. As long as the sign says "open," lookers have a clear right to be on the property if for no other reason that sheer curiosity.

Some lookers stand out. There are the "decorators" who can be identified by the shrill cry, "Remember that armoire. It was in 'Architectural Life' -- the issue of July 1957." Sports enthusiasts are known for their keen insight into housing matters: "Hey man, that's a great color TV. Wanna watch the game?"

Another major group includes the neighbors. "We just dropped by to see Martha and Phil's place. It really looks much better since the fire."

To be a proper looker one must observe certain rules. Generally accepted standards include:

1. Sign in when you arrive.Brokers maintain a register to record who has seen the house, which -- after all -- is private property. If signing in offends you, find a new diversion.

2. Don't touch. Open houses contain items with tremendous sentimental value to the owners. One person's knickknack is another's life history.

3. Don't bring children or pets. Few scenes thrill a broker less than the arrival of a caravan with nine children and a large clumsy dog. Looking, like pornography, is for adults only.

4. Don't smoke. The owners and others may have allergies or otherwise be offended.

5. If the basement has more mustiness than Johnstown after the flood, don't say a word. The problem may be correctable. In any case, don't criticize a home in front of others. A quick remark may demolish someone's dream. A home that is too small, too expensive or too whatever for you may be just right for someone else.

Looking is becoming an increasing popular activity. With home prices rising faster than wages, looking is all many of us can afford. For some it is a form of substitution while for others it is part of the home-owning process. Whatever the reason, looking is a year-round pastime that anyone can enjoy.

See you Sunday.