PHILADELPHIA -- When Elaine Blair put her home up for sale in January, she cleaned the attic, scrubbed the woodwork and kept the place spotless through five open houses.

She did everything humanly possible to make it attractive to buyers in a sluggish market.

Then, after seven months without a single offer, she invoked a higher power.

On the advice of a friend, she bought a small, plastic statue of St. Joseph and buried it in her front lawn.

Upside down. Next to the "For Sale" sign.

Less than a month later, the house sold -- and for close to the asking price.

"When my friend told me to bury St. Joseph, I said, 'You have to be kidding,' " Blair said last week. "Now, I'm a believer."

So, too, are legions of other homeowners seeking a miracle cure for the stagnant housing market.

Religious goods stores in Chicago, Newark, Detroit, Long Island and San Jose, Calif., report increased sales of statues of St. Joseph, who, as head of the Holy Family, has long been seen as a source of help in domestic matters.

Home sellers in the Washington area are also after their share of divine intervention.

Charles Clementson, store manager of William J. Gallery & Co., a Wheaton store featuring Catholic-oriented items, said his firm has sold hundreds of statues of St. Joseph.

"There are real estate firms that buy them in bulk," Clementson said. "Some have bought 100 or 500." He declined to disclose the identity of the customers.

From 300 to 400 homeowners have bought the statues in the last few months, he said. Some real estate agents and some homeowners have told him that houses sold after the St. Joseph statues were buried in their yards.

Although it is a fundamental Roman Catholic belief that prayer to the saints can result in intervention by God, Clementson said the burying of the statue is an old custom and an old superstition, not a recognized ritual or sacrament of the church.

There is, however, a specific prayer for the prompt sale of a home that is associated with the burial of the statue.

Clementson noted that Catholics and non-Catholics alike are buying the statues.

In Philadelphia and its suburbs, the practice of interring the saint has become so popular that several area stores regularly sell out of small, inexpensive models favored by home sellers.

"People feel a little self-conscious about it, putting St. Joseph in the dirt," said Alice Gorman, a clerk at the St. Jude Shop, a religious articles store in northeast Philadelphia. "But it's really caught on."

Some real estate agents even have begun laying in private stocks of St. Joseph to distribute among selected clients.

Jean Fitzgerald, a Paoli, Pa., broker, said she keeps about 20 statues in a bag under her desk and carries a trowel in her car.

If a house has lingered on the market for a while, she discreetly inquires whether the sellers "have done their gardening," as she calls it.

"I've been burying St. Joseph for 15 years, ever since I got into the real estate business," Fitzgerald said. "Now it's becoming epidemic. At my office, they hand them out at the sales meetings.

"I guess desperation makes believers of everyone," she said.

So it seems to Mike Greene, owner of Panation Trade Co. in Brooklyn, a national distributor of religious articles.

"It's been going on for about two years," Greene said. "St. Joseph was never one of our most popular statues. Now it's second only to the Blessed Mother."

Most customers opt for the cheapest plastic statues, which stand three to six inches tall and sell for anywhere from 69 cents to $2.95.

But dealers say a homeowner in need of major intercession will occasionally pay more.

A 12-inch model of the saint with a rhinestone halo retails for $33.95.

"We joke that depending on how fast you want to sell your house, you buy the more expensive statue," said Daniel Castonguay, president of Abbott Church Goods in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Religious authorities regard St. Joseph's rising popularity as a mixed blessing.

The Rev. James Coen, who runs the Catholic Information Center in the District, said the practice of enlisting St. Joseph's help with real estate dates back centuries.

European nuns hoping to acquire property for convents often buried medals of the saint, who, as the patron saint of family, "was the one who took care of the material things."

"The medals gradually became statues," Coen said, and the church does not object, as long as the burial rite is engaged "as a form of intercessory prayer, to stimulate devotion in the person."

But Coen said, "The Realtors are turning this into a first-class sales gimmick bordering on superstition.

"I don't think Joseph is running around with any great concern about the state of the real estate market. It's not worthy of him," he said.

Nonetheless, the practice is spreading, fueled by the stories that speak to the power of the statue.

Carol Crimaldi, an agent with Spectrum Realty in south Philadelphia, said her sister-in-law's home had been on the market almost nine months in June when someone suggested she bury a St. Joseph statue.

"She put it out front, where she puts her flowers," Crimaldi said. "It only cost her 69 cents."

Two weeks later, the house sold.

"I'd never heard of it before," Crimaldi said. "Now we're passing it on."

Greg DiCocco of Valley Forge, Pa., has sought St. Joseph's help in selling five houses over the last six years -- and got his asking price every time.

"In 1986, when we sold our home in Media, we got asking price within two weeks," said DiCocco, whose family owns three St. Jude Shops. "But the people who made an offer couldn't get a mortgage. So we had to turn around and bury St. Joseph again. This time, it sold at an even higher price.

"Not to sound like a fanatic," DiCocco said, "but the Lord really does work in mysterious ways."

Elaine Blair felt the same sense of divine intervention in the sale of her home in Havertown, Pa.

The house sat for seven months before she planted St. Joseph, then sold four weeks later.

"It had to be a superior being," Blair said. "There were 250 houses for sale in Havertown in our price range."

Although the practice is most prevalent among Catholics, St. Joseph is an equal-opportunity good luck charm.

Kerry Meluskey had been trying to unload her Society Hill condo for 10 months when someone encouraged her to bury St. Joseph.

"I'm Jewish, so I felt kind of funny about it," Meluskey said last week. "Also, my condo was on the fourth floor of Society Hill Towers," which made traditional burial impractical.

"My mother suggested putting the statue in the back yard of our new house in Wallingford and telling it to sell the condo," she said.

But a nearby house in Wallingford also was up for sale, "and I was afraid St. Joseph would sell the wrong property."

She finally wound up putting the statue on a kitchen shelf in the condominium.

The place sold earlier this month.

"Did it make me a believer? No, not really," said Meluskey's real estate agent, Allan Domb, president of the Philadelphia Board of Realtors.

"But I did leave my business card there next to the statue," Domb said. "I figured, what the heck, it can't hurt."

Many practitioners believe St. Joseph must be buried upside down to be effective, "with his little feet pointing toward heaven," Jean Fitzgerald said.

While some say the burial should be in one corner of the property, others recommend a spot near the FOR SALE sign. About half say the statue must face the house; the other half say the street.

Devotees, however, seem to agree on one thing: After a house sells, St. Joseph should be exhumed and given a place of honor in the new home.

"One woman, when we were pouring the foundation of her new home, she dropped the statue in the cement, right where the front door would be," Fitzpatrick said.

To true believers, like Greg DiCocco, the ritual is less important than the faith behind it.

"A lot of people get caught up in superstition, but that's immaterial," he said. "I tell everybody who buys the statue, the most important thing is to buy the 15-cent prayer card."

Because the standard prayer to St. Joseph makes no reference to real estate, some sellers do a little ad libbing, DiCocco said.

"My wife, when she would say her prayers, would say, wouldn't it be nice if two people would be interested at the same time so we could get our asking price. And it would happen."

Not surprisingly, not all real estate agents believe in St. Joseph's power to move the product.

Among the doubting Thomases is Scott Mayer, a Century 21 agent in Lafayette Hill, Pa.

"I've never heard of it, but I wouldn't put much faith in it," he said. "If you're having trouble selling a house, I find a good strong price adjustment will solve the problem every time."