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Fake Buyers Are Back!

At open houses, at least the perpetual shoppers are returning.

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Illustration by Peter Arkle  

Brooklyn broker Peggy Aguayo hadn’t seen the guy since January. Before then, he’d been an open-house regular, pacing through rooms and pocketing her handouts. Aguayo calls him an L.L.—a “lifelong looker”—who followed the market but had never bought anything. And when sales slumped, he, along with many real buyers, disappeared. That is, until recently, when Aguayo spotted him at a condo showing, scooping up the latest flyer.

Open houses are suddenly full of these don’t-I-know-you moments. Corcoran’s John Gasdaska has had similar reunions; so has Michele Kleier of Gumley Haft Kleier, who at a recent showing on the Upper East Side ran into an L.L. she’s seen for years. Same for Jodi Cowen of Brown Harris Stevens: “A guy the other day came back twice and then told me, ‘I haven’t even sold my apartment yet.’ I’ve been getting a lot of that,” she says. Cowen estimates that her window-shopping traffic is up 50 percent—whereas real buyers are up 25 percent.

Does attention from non-buyers mean anything? “It’s a good sign,” insists Kleier. “Even they give up when the market is down.” Aguayo adds that when business was slow, “only the ultraserious showed up.” But at a Park Slope viewing two Sundays ago, “there were about 30 sign-ins … A lot of people were saying they were just curious.” After all, if they still have jobs, and the economy is showing hints of recovery, their fantasy lives can roar back into existence. “People were so scared of their own financial health they couldn’t even think of window-shopping,” says StreetEasy’s Sofia Kim. But now “they hear the Dow is up, the positive third-quarter reports.” (Besides, professional lookers tend to keep a low profile, and it’s easier to slip into an open house when there’s a crowd.) For the record, Kim says transactions have definitely increased over late 2008—though that was when the market was at a virtual standstill.

Not every broker is so tolerant, of course: Corcoran’s Rebecca Knaster says dealing with Sunday lurkers is “very frustrating.” But they can be a way to keep sellers’ hopes alive. As Kleier puts it, “they may actually work out. If you get them with the right apartment, they may buy.” Someday. Maybe.


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