“Take a number” open houses.

Open houses say a lot about how hot, or not, the real estate market is, and in no uncertain terms. Years ago I held open a nice home in Redwood Shores for another agent that netted just one group through the door right after I set up. Then no one. It was like they’d cordoned off and evacuated the neighborhood because of a gas leak and forgotten to tell me. I had another open, in the Redwood City flats, in a neighborhood just starting to feel the subprime meltdown, that netted no buyers, no curious neighbors, not even a tire-kicker, even though I had an A-frame on El Camino. Exactly no one showed up except your humble narrator, doing a last-minute favor for an agent he owed, and what was probably a roach, crawling along the living room floor.

By the way, you may be curious as to what we agents do at poorly-attended open houses, aside from smoking the seller’s cigars and drinking her Chateau Lafite Rothschild. In the days before tablets and smartphones, we’d watch the local wildlife crawl across the living room floor. Or we’d take a book off the seller’s bookshelf, get engrossed and be genuinely irritated when someone finally showed up. Or our life would pass before our eyes. These days, I don’t know, I have to admit. Agents probably update their Facebook page, tweet, and tweak their business plan, all in the first fifteen minutes.

But the dismal open house is a thing of the past, based on the opens I’ve seen recently. Buyers hungry for name-brand schools jamming two beat-up but bargain-priced homes in the Lynbrook attendance area. Wall-to-wall buyers at a small home, last updated in 1950 but affordably priced, in a sought-after San Carlos neighborhood, and one-hundred fifty groups through a week-end of opens at a similar home around the corner. A line to get into another San Carlos home, newer and nicer, up the hill. Wall-to-wall buyers at a Thursday night open in San Mateo. Thirty groups through a Redwood City listing that’s been on the market since last fall. A steady stream of buyers through a small, uninspiring home in San Mateo’s Sunnybrae neighborhood, and a torrent through another, slightly larger but not significantly more inspiring house nearby. Three hundred people each day through two small fixers side by side near downtown San Mateo, with ninety offers the next Tuesday.

Not every open is bursting at the seams. One in Redwood City last week, for a large home priced above recent comps, was surprisingly quiet, although in another age it would have been considered quite decent. But busy—no, make that frenzied—open houses are the rule. And the agents “lucky” enough to get open houses these days seem to be there mostly for crowd control. “Keep it moving, folks…”

In the immortal words of Butch Cassidy (or was it the Sundance Kid?), “who are these guys?” Is every one of them a real buyer? Pretty much, although I’m sure that their motivation varies widely. For some, it’s enough just to participate in the latest social trend. For others, it’s a matter of life or death. Most fall somewhere in between.

Will this go on forever? Define “forever”. If you mean “a year from now”, no, I doubt it, although the cost of not having an elbow in your ribs at an open house next spring may be prices ten percent higher than this spring. If you mean “a month from now”, or even “six months from now”, the answer is probably yes. Sure, more homes will be on the market by then (I think), and, sure, some of the people now pouring through open houses will have gotten discouraged, either permanently or, my guess, temporarily, to re-appear next year or the year after, whenever the market slows down to a dull roar. But anyone who doubts that what’s happening now is real doesn’t know their local real estate history. This is how booms take off in these parts, except that this time the take-off is jet-assisted.

Think the dot-com and mid-2000s booms were big noises? They were, but I have a feeling that this one will make them look like muffled thuds.

copyright © John Fyten 2013

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