The open house is back -- and so are the 'lookie-loos'

Stephanie James says she started touring open houses for fun more than a decade ago, and got 'hooked.'

By most indicators, the real estate market is on a rebound.

And that means Sunday afternoons are stacking up with open houses, along with the untold numbers who make a hobby of taking a peek at their neighbor’s digs.

“We had one kind of ‘drive-by,’" says Atlanta real estate agent Sylvia Mallarino, who was hosting an open house in the upscale Briarcliff neighborhood recently. “We’ve had five or six parties come through. Only one has been what we call a ‘lookie-loo.’”

A "lookie-loo" is real-estate-speak for those who drop into an open house, but have absolutely no intention of buying. 

“I think once you get in the habit of it, it’s a hard habit to break,” says 37-year-old marketing consultant Stephanie James of checking in on open houses. James says she has stolen peeks inside homes for sale as often as every weekend.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, she checks out the 5,500 sq. ft. home Sylvia Mallarino has listed at just shy of a million dollars.

“I didn’t know you put urinals in residential homes,” Stephanie says as she tours the home’s basement. “I think maybe because there’s a pool table down here, maybe it’s a mancave?"

James doesn’t think her hobby of the past 12 years is any big deal. She laughs that she’s a tad bit nosey, in a stereotypical, Southern kind of way. Upon entering the huge kitchen, Stephanie comments how she likes the intricate, faux-finished cabinetry and the antique-looking stove, but isn’t a fan of the lion heads carved into the sink.

“I don’t think I’d spend the money to rip it out,” she says. “But then you wonder, if I did rip it out, could I sell it on Craigslist? Is there someone out there who might actually want this?”

Part of the fun of an open house for Stephanie is looking at a home’s décor and imagining the lives of the people who live there.

“Secretly, you wonder, why are the people leaving?,” she whispers. “Then I think there’s part of you that starts to do the soap opera thing of ‘I wonder if there’s an issue or divorce, or if somebody gets transferred?’ So you kind of wonder about the ‘why?’ a little bit.”

Stephanie says she always tells the listing agent she’s just looking.

Emory University psychologist Nadine Kaslow says lookie-loodum can go too far.

“I actually talked to a lookie-loo this morning, somebody who I knew was one,” says Kaslow. “And it was interesting because her family views her as a lookie-loo. But she doesn’t view it as that way at all. She thinks maybe she will buy these houses.” 

Kaslow says the person in question visits open houses every Sunday, and is being treated for what she calls a “confluence” of psychological issues. But she acknowledges we all have a bit of a healthy, voyeuristic, lookie-loo quality in us.

Need proof? Just ask the millions who tune in every night to HGTV’s “House Hunters.”

“Who doesn’t like to look in the windows of their neighbors’ home and not be caught?” asks HGTV general manager Kathleen Finch. She says the concept is so popular, the network is developing more shows along the same line.

Despite a sometimes negative connotation, Pennsylvania real estate agent and National Assoc. of Realtors V.P. Dominic Cardone says lookie-loos can turn out to be profitable for agents.

“You have to start somewhere,” says Cardone. “So a good conversation at an open house is a great opportunity for realtors. Even when we’re speaking with the 'lookie loos.'”

For open house enthusiast Stephanie James, she’s seen both sides of the coin. When her house was on the market a year ago, her agent said her Sunday open house attracted what the agent described as “curious neighbors.”

“I realized I wasn’t the only one. Then they’d make comments to me that ‘Oh wow!  I’d never been in your house before, and then you had an open house. And it’s really nice in there!’ And these are people I didn’t even really know.”

But does James consider herself a lookie-loo?

“I hope I’m not,” she laughs.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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