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Players in Manhattan's 'heated market' can gain an edge in open-house season

Forget leisurely brunch - this is the season to spend Sunday afternoons rushing around Manhattan competing in a high-stakes sport. The weekly open-house marathon starts at noon and lasts until just 4 p.m., so players learn to rapidly size up the terrain and act decisively.

A recent open house for an East Ninth Street one-bedroom attracted three viewers at noon on the nose, and the apartment was crowded with inquisitive visitors within minutes. David Tien snapped digital pictures to e-mail to his wife in California and wondered how his father, a believer in feng shui, would rate the location of the front door. Other attendees commented approvingly on the apartment's size but critiqued the condition of the wood floors.

Given the $649,000 price tag - a relative bargain these days - and desirable downtown address, several viewers decided pros outweighed cons. That night, sales agent Alexandra Bellak of Prudential Douglas Elliman received an offer at the asking price, and two others within days. "It's a heated market, and there's a lot of activity," Bellak said. "We're seeing a lot more serious buyers at open houses."

Five years ago, seven to 10 potential buyers at a two-hour open house was considered a successful turnout, said real estate agent JoAnn Schwimmer of Citi Habitats. But over the past few years, increased demand for limited inventory has made open houses hugely popular, especially for apartments priced from $500,000 to $1.5 million in coveted neighborhoods. Those homes can attract dozens of viewers in an afternoon.

Spending a Sunday at open houses allows buyers to see several properties in quick succession, something many New Yorkers cannot do during the workweek. By being among the first to attend an open house and put in a bid, a buyer can gain an edge in this hotly competitive market.

For a seller, an open house can attract lots of potential buyers at once, reducing the need for time-consuming individual appointments. And by hiring a broker, a seller forgoes the hassle of managing visitors and the awkwardness of hearing highly opinionated hordes comment on a beloved home.

Taking a visitor through the $3.95-million West 71st Street town house her family has owned since 1982, Olga Fourier, 55, explained the emotional side of her decision to hire Prudential's Jacky Teplitzky.

"I made the backyard from scratch," Fourier said proudly, showing off a tidy garden with decorative stones, ivy and a 5-foot maple tree she planted from a 2-inch seedling. "If somebody looks at it and says 'These stones must go,' my heart would probably go down."

Open-house mania has inspired bans or restrictions in some apartment houses. In some buildings, brokers must now personally escort potential buyers from the lobby, rather than leaving the doorman to show them in. The reason for the crackdown is simple, said Schwimmer of Citi Habitats: "Residents are home and want to enjoy their home."

Residents and prospective buyers can look forward to thinner crowds after Memorial Day, when open houses typically shift to Monday afternoons or evenings. For now, though, potential buyers and brokers are crowding the showings.

After three and a half months searching in the West Village, Brent Simon, 26, founder of a medical device company, has learned to ask about pet policies and whether a board will allow his parents to serve as a guarantor. He liked the space on East Ninth Street, but asking about financing requirements allowed him to cross the apartment off his list. After hitting four or five open houses every weekend, he said, "I am worn out," but he added, "I'm not willing to settle."

At an open house on East 49th Street, Jaclyn Louie, 10, opened the fridge and peeked inside. She was checking out the two-bedroom apartment with her mother, Betty Law, 46, and brother, James Louie, 12. A single mother and an information technology professional, Law wants to move her family from a partitioned studio in Kips Bay. She is looking for an apartment in the $600,000 to $750,000 range in a doorman building.

Visiting open houses with her children helps her determine whether a building is kid-friendly and allows all of them to envision their use of the space. "You get more of an idea of what your money can buy," Law said.

Tien, 31, is new to Manhattan's Darwinian real estate arena, having moved to New York from Santa Clara, Calif., last year to work in financial services. He and his wife, Erica Yao, 29, a Stanford University graduate student, have just begun searching for a West Side apartment in the $700,000 price range.

The week after his first round, Tien prepared for the next one by surfing the Web, and he soon realized just how quickly an apartment can move from open house to off the market.

"A couple I found in the past few days have already gone into contract," he said. "I almost have a feeling I'll have to sit back on Friday night and do a fresh search."

Here's what the experts suggest to help you get the most out of an open house:

Buyers should research apartments online to learn as much as possible before seeing them. Be ready to make an offer by having relevant paperwork in order, including mortgage pre-approval letter and financial statements. Lastly, says Prudential Douglas Elliman sales agent Drew Glick, don't assume you have to wait for the Sunday mob scene - ask your broker or the seller's agent to see the apartment during the week.

Before retaining a broker to handle a sale, sellers should ask how he or she will market the property and how the open house will be conducted, says Prudential Douglas Elliman's Jacky Teplitzky. She also suggests a simple but often overlooked strategy: "Clean the house and put out fresh flowers. Really work for it."



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