McLean home builder Ann Grimm wants to move on to other projects. But she's got 20 houses and 37 parcels of land left in five subdivisions. Selling that property in this year's slow real estate market could drag on for months, or even longer, so Grimm is taking the fast way out.

In December, she's auctioning it all off.

Grimm, believed to be the first home builder in the Washington area to put so much property on the trading block, is employing an increasingly popular sales technique that has begun to sweep into the area from the depressed New York-area real estate market.

While slumping home sales in the Washington area are nowhere near the depths to which they have plunged in New York and New England, so-called "non-distress" auctions are on the rise here. Unlike foreclosure auctions, the often-hurried sales of financially troubled property, "non-distress" auctions are held voluntarily. The auctions are usually advertised, sometimes even on television, and marketed to attract the right type of bidder. Would-be buyers are asked to preregister and are often required to submit to a credit check with a lender before being allowed to bid on property.

"Auctions seem to be bringing buyers to the table at a time when no one else seems to be able to," said Daniel DeCaro, president of DeCaro Real Estate Auction Inc. the Seaford, Del.-based company that will auction off the Grimm Co.'s houses and land.

About $30 billion of land is expected to be sold at auction in the United States this year, compared with $10 billion in 1980, according to Stephen Martin, president of the Gwent Group, a Bloomington, Ind.-based auction-consulting firm. In the last two years, real estate auctions in the Washington-Baltimore region have increased about 17 percent, he said.

For some property owners, the rapid-fire auctioneer's chant can be a fast way to get out from under the carrying costs of real estate, even if it means selling at a discount. It's difficult to count the number of auctions being held, but area auction companies report the number has increased from last year, and virtually every weekend non-distress auctions are held somewhere in the Washington suburbs.

In the last year, at least five auction companies have begun operating in the Washington area, according to area auctioneers. Bob East, a Loudoun County real estate agent, for example, formed TBW Auction Marketing three months ago with two partners. The realty firm of Coldwell Banker has begun an auction division here called Premier Marketing, headed by a former Detroit auctioneer.

"I think for a good period of time, auctions are going to be a way of life here," East said.

At the same time, there are skeptics. While non-distress real estate auctions are attracting crowds -- an auction by TBW last weekend of two houses and 14 parcels of residentially zoned land in Loudoun County attracted almost 200 people -- relatively few houses are actually being sold at the auctions so far.

At the Loudoun County auction, for example, only one house and one parcel of land were sold, although East said one parcel of land was sold before the auction and he's negotiating the sale of the other house with someone who attended the auction.

In some cases, sellers don't like the prices being offered and they pull the property off the auction block. Warrenton, Va., builder Mark St. Onge put two of his unsold luxury homes, with original asking prices of more than $400,000, up for auction last month. Fifty people showed up for the auction. But no one bid on the first house, and St. Onge halted the auction on the second house when only one bid, for $150,000, was received.

Auctioneers say they consider any sale a success and that it will take time for Washington-area buyers to become accustomed to the idea of auctions. But skeptics say that lowering prices won't stimulate buyers.

"All the blue light specials in the world don't work if nobody's in the store," said Loudoun County developer Bruce Brownell, who bought a one-bedroom house at last Saturday's auction for $110,000.

Ron Rasmus, president of the 12-year-old firm of R.L. Rasmus Auctioneers Inc., said sellers often misunderstand the function of an auction. Calls to his firm inquiring about holding a house auction have increased fivefold in recent months, but he turns down most requests.

"People call and say, 'I've got a $250,000 house and I'm willing to take $230,000.' And I tell them 'You're not going to sell it' " at an auction, Rasmus said. He warns sellers that at an auction, the house may yield 30 percent to 40 percent below what it would have sold for a year ago on the open market.

Methods of selling at auctions can vary. In many cases, sellers require a minimum bid or reserve the right to pull the property off the block if the winning bid is too low. The more daring, or confident, sellers auction their property as "absolute" sale candidates, meaning that the winning bidder -- no matter how low his bid -- gets the property. Auction companies usually require that developers auctioning off multiple properties offer at least a few as "absolute" sale candidates as a way to draw bidders.

Rasmus said he advises homeowners not to offer their houses for auction without a minimum bid or without reserving the right to pull the house back if the bids aren't satisfactory.

Grimm, who runs the McLean company with her husband, Gary, will offer six houses and five pieces of property as "absolute" candidates. The company has reserved the right to refuse winning bids on the other properties.

The houses are scattered through subdivisions in Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties. They include nine four- and five-bedroom houses in the Quince Orchard Estates subdivision in Montgomery with original asking prices as high as $360,000, as well as one parcel of land and two houses in Leesburg, and 13 parcels of land and two houses in Centreville with original asking prices of $395,000 apiece.

The houses will be auctioned off in December, and Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. is seeking to persuade its real estate agents to bring clients, because fees paid by the Grimm Co. and buyers will cover real estate agents' commissions.

But some Washington-area builders are less than enthusiastic about the Grimm Co.'s planned auction.

"It's tragic," said one builder who asked not to be named. "It makes a bad impression on the industry, {and} it makes a bad impression on the economy... . I don't like the auction idea at all."

Nevertheless, Ann Grimm is forging ahead.

She noted that other builders haven't had as much success recently as in the past selling their houses using traditional sales methods and that it's time to try something different. "This is a great opportunity for us to do something a little creative," she said. "If we're successful with this, maybe other builders will want to do it... ."