During the past year, Barbara Haywood had gone through three real estate firms in an attempt to sell her home in the District's Chevy Chase neighborhood. But the highest offer she received was $165,000, a figure she believed too low for the large, four-bedroom house.
Desperate to sell, Haywood decided to put her 60-year-old, Colonial-style house up for auction, a new route taken by a small, but growing number of Washington-area homeowners.
Last Saturday, after four earlier open houses this month, about 50 people gathered on her front lawn just off Connecticut Avenue at 3728 Legation St. NW for the auction. In the audience were 13 persons who made a $7,500 down payment in order to bid on the property she co-owns with another couple.
The bidding started at $115,000, and like most auctions, as the price went up, so did the number of people dropping out of the competition. With auctioneer Craig Rasmus coaxing on the remaining bidders, the offers quickly went higher.
After just five minutes, Rasmus slammed down his gavel, and the house was sold for $193,000, a price that even surprised Haywood.
"I'm really happy," she said, praising the auction process because it sold her house so quickly. "It's a one-shot thing, and it's over with."
For Van Lung, the successful bidder who said he wasn't even in the market for a new home, the auction process wasn't as nerve-wracking at it appeared. "I had made up my mind on my limit," he said. "It was far more relaxing than I had anticipated."
Traditionally, real estate auctions have been used for sales of foreclosed homes and large estates. But recently, with a housing market that is creating a booming business for the real estate industry, some auction companies have begun expanding their services to include the typical home sale, a domain usually reserved for real estate brokers.
Rasmus' father, Alexandria auctioneer Ronald Rasmus, held his first nonforeclosure home sale a year ago. Today, the father-and-son partners are averaging about six sales a month in the Washington area.
"We're of the opinion that real estate auctioning is going to blow wide open," said Ronald Rasmus, who added that auctions are identical to traditional home-selling methods, except that a homeowner usually knows when his house will be sold.
"You ask a Realtor when are they going to sell a house and they look at you like you're crazy," Rasmus said. "You ask us and we're able to tell you at 11:07 a.m. on April 19." Rasmus' company is the only known Washington auction firm that is specializing in the sale of nonforeclosure homes.
Home sellers who choose the Rasmus auction route pay an initial 2 to 3 percent of the value of their home, which covers local newspaper and direct mail advertising. In the case of Haywood's sale, more than 7,000 brochures were mailed to residents in the vicinity of the home, Rasmus said.
When the house is sold, Rasmus takes an additional 3 percent of the selling price. That total 5 to 6 percent commission is roughly the same as the fee that most real estate brokers receive for a home sale.
There is no minimum bid at the auction, but a home seller has the right to reject the final offer if he feels it is not high enough. A successful bidder normally has 45 days to make the final payment on the house. Rasmus said he tries to make clear to all bidders that they should not participate in the auction if they cannot obtain financing.
Craig Rasmus said auctions "are right for the person whose home needs special promotion," such as property in a high-demand area or, because of changing market conditions, a house whose exact value can't be established.
But others, including some local auctioneers, doubt if home auctions will prove popular.
Thornton W. Owen Jr., chairman of Thos. J. Owen & Son, one of the largest auction houses in the Washington area, said he advises clients against the so-called "owner-auctions," as they are called in the trade.
He said most bidders "are not sincerely interested in buying the property, but to steal it . . . at a low price."
Owen, who said 99 percent of his company's real estate auctions are foreclosure sales, said that auctions are not right for a normal house sale, but rather for properties "that are burdened by unique conditions," such as houses with structural damage.
Peter Rucci, president of the Washington Board of Realtors and a vice president with Shannon & Luchs, said real estate auctions "are another avenue you could try, but I think it's limited." He said brokers can offer home sellers more exposure for their houses than auctioneers.
In some areas of the country, particularly the condominium-glutted area of southeast Florida and the Midwest farm belt, auctioneering is usually synonymous with a distress sale. That is changing, however, according to Hugh Miller, president of the National Auctioneers Association in Overland Park, Kan.
"All throughout the country, we are finding there is a tremendous increase in the number of nonforeclosure properties being sold at auction," said Miller, who added that his association recently began offering seminars for auctioneers on the business of real estate bidding. "We're promoting it very rapidly and as hard as we can."
Internationally, real estate auctions already have caught on. In Melbourne, Australia, for example, more than 9,000 homes were sold at auction last year. "It's a very common activity in Australia," said Ian Dawes, a spokesman at the Australian Embassy in Washington.
Elizabeth Jones-Lucas, who was trading bids back and forth with Lung in the final, tense moments of last Saturday's Chevy Chase auction, said that the bidding process appeals to many home buyers who are accustomed to the immediacy of other markets.
"It fits in with the sort of national mentality that everyone wants instant service. Nobody wants to wait," said Jones-Lucas, who now rents a house in the Chevy Chase neighborhood.
But she said that auctions can also give a home buyer a sense of confidence. "I think you feel safer at an auction because you know that someone else is willing to pay nearly the same price," she said. "But you just have to have your wits about you and not get carried away in the bidding."
Jones-Lucas dropped out of the auction at $192,000. "If I had made one more bid, I would have gone over my limit," she said.