Real estate

My quest to flush out open house crashers

Michael Sloan for The Boston Globe

My first observation of the elusive creature referred to as “looky-loo” (Emptordomus minime; also see: “open house groupie”) occurred while watching the 2009 comedy “I Love You, Man.”

In the film, Peter (Paul Rudd), an LA real estate agent, invites his friend Sydney (Jason Segel) to his open house for Lou Ferrigno’s mansion. While grazing the hors d’oeuvres table, Sydney points out a young man accompanied by a beautiful woman.

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He’s not a buyer, he tells Peter. It’s just a courting display intended to impress the woman. To convince Peter of his acumen, he then predicts when the “looky-loo” will fart.

Such a quick and accurate identification looks easy in the movies. Not so, as I was to learn, in the real world of real estate. My quest for the looky-loo took me to open houses from downtown Boston almost to the frontiers of Waban (that pesky Green Line!). And as so often happens in studies of this kind, I ended up learning as much about myself as about the subject under scrutiny.

Field reports

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My first location was the 19th-century building in downtown Boston that had once been the historic restaurant Locke-Ober. It had been converted into condominiums. Two are on the market now, for $2.6 million and $3 million.

I surveyed one of the units. It was sprawling and opulent, and I was alone except for Keith Shirley from Meridian Realty Group, who took me on a tour of the place. I was especially impressed by the snuggery that had been reserved for the Kennedy clan for generations when the place was still Locke-Ober. Something about the rich paneling and the vintage-looking rust-colored wallpaper, an American flag hanging outside the window brilliant in the sunlight, lulled me into a daydream about sharing finnan haddie and lobster bisque with Jack and Joe and . . .

But I shook off this fantasy and returned to the business at hand. I explained my quest to Shirley and asked him if looky-loos might come by out of curiosity to see what happened to this revered Boston landmark, established in 1875.

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He didn’t think so. “They’d be intimidated by the price,” he explained. He suggested I try less expensive properties.

Taking his advice, I headed to Beacon Hill, accompanied by my eagle-eyed partner Alicia, to check places in a lower price range. The agents showing a place near the State House, Elena Krupennikova and Maria Sosa from Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty, were friendly and helpful even when I revealed that I was not a buyer but was writing a story about looky-loos. “They might be found in a more active environment,” Sosa said. “Like the South End.”

Their advice was, as they say in the real estate business, “right on the money.” (Or maybe the phrase I’m thinking of is “location location, location!” I do not claim to be an expert on such matters). A unit in the former St. Cloud Hotel building near the corner of Tremont and Clarendon was hopping! People were swarming in and out — surely not all of them were here to shell out $799,000. And indeed we could see the appeal — the huge windows and panoramic view of the city, the angular but airy layout. Alicia and I discussed ways we might redecorate it.

No wonder the looky-loos were flocking here. But how to confront them without disrupting the habitat and scaring them off? Nor did I want to cause problems for the Keller Williams agent, Tara Wilstein, who had her hands full.

I decided to lie in wait outside and eavesdrop on visitors as they exited, determining from their conversation whether they were indeed serious buyers, and if not, introduce myself in an unthreatening manner and start asking questions.

I didn’t have to wait long. Alicia spotted a power-walking couple in identical beige baseball caps and white sneakers zipping by. One said to the other, “Oh look, an open house.” They scooted in, looky-loos for sure!

I waited outside, hidden in the alcove of the bank next door. About 10 minutes later, the pair burst from the building, resumed their power-walking pace, zoomed by me, raced down Tremont Street, and vanished in the crowd outside the Cyclorama.

‘It’s part of this culture of moving up in the world. But then there are some who are curious about other people in an extreme way.’

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An opportunity missed!

Fortunately, there was one more chance: an evening open house later in the week at 341 Marlborough St. It was the building where Alicia’s dentist used to have his office; it had been converted into condos, and she wanted to see what they had done with the place.

It was stunning. The pristine white hall and stairway had the resiny scent that Alicia described as “that expensive new home smell.” The interior was spacious and cozy at once, dressed to create a pleasing illusion of actual occupancy. Jazz was piped through the state-of-the-art sound system. Real art — moody canvases by local artists — hung on the walls and were on sale. And there were snacks and beverages — sparkling Italian wine and Pellegrino.

The Coldwell Banker agent, Gary Lazarus, was charming and informative as he described the place while we stood on a copper-faced deck that was larger than my living room. Imagine watching the Fourth of July fireworks from here! “You can see them better from the penthouse,” Lazarus pointed out.

If only we could knock the price down a digit or two.

Everybody else looked like they belonged there. We didn’t partake of the refreshments. As Alicia said, “It was cheese not meant for us.”

Case studies

Having little success in the field, I decided to utilize other resources: the Internet, friends, and family.

Some of the best leads offered involved theft. A Facebook friend said his parents were accused of stealing something from an open house and were pursued by the agent. They were innocent but still were unwilling to be interviewed even when promised anonymity. The brother of a friend of a friend of my sister had gotten into the habit of picking up “souvenirs” from open houses until he was arrested. Had he been inspired by the “Open House” episode of “Breaking Bad?” But he, too, declined to participate.

For the most part, those willing to discuss their hobby said they crashed open houses because they wanted to check the market or compare other properties with their own. Holly Hartman of Brookline, for example, became a looky-loo soon after buying her house. “Although I wouldn’t say I had buyer’s remorse,” she wrote, “I think I was seeking reassurance that the choice my partner and I had made was a good one.”

Hartman mentioned a dark side to this world — not on the part of the looky-loos themselves, but the homeowners. “I did go to an FSBO [for sale by owner] that was clearly inhabited by hoarders,” she recalled. “All the rooms were too full of junk to enter. The creepy homeowner chanted ‘hello-kitchen-bathroom-bedroom-bedroom-living room-goodbye’ behind me until I was out the door. I could feel his breath on the back of my neck.”

It was time for me to get professional help.

Psychological consultation

Nadine Kaslow , a psychologist at Emory University and president of the American Psychological Association , was quoted in an article about looky-loos last February on the website www.marketplace.org . Afterward she received a flood of inquiries from those with the habit, 12 of whom she is currently treating.

Despite these cases, Kaslow does not think being a looky-loo is necessarily a cause for concern. It might just be a symptom of the American Dream. “We all have the sense that bigger and more is better,” she said over the phone from Atlanta. “It’s part of this culture of moving up in the world. But then there are some who are curious about other people in an extreme way. They go to these houses and they have the fantasy that it’s their home, though they don’t have the kind of money to buy it. They can imagine playing out a pretend life.”

This sounded familiar. Alicia and I are planning to visit the open house for one of the other units at 341 Marlborough in a couple of weeks. Maybe then we’ll eat the cheese.

Summary

You need look no further than the huge mirror above the elegant white Venatino marble sink in front of you. The looky-loo is you.

Watch a clip from “I Love You, Man”:

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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