Sluggish market doesn't discourage local home tours

By Elizabeth Bettendorf, Front Porch
Published February 29, 2008

I went on my first home tour as a teenager - a fundraiser for my high school - and never recovered.

It's an illness, no doubt, one with no known cure except for watching a lot of HGTV.

Over the years, I've trekked my way through so many house tours I've long since lost track - from bohemian downtown brownstones to gazillion-dollar homes on Florida's elite Jupiter Island to show houses in glamorous waterfront condos and stately old mansions.

I've managed to find home tours in cities I'm visiting on vacation including, once - ah, bliss! - the mother lode of all home tours, a candlelight jaunt through a neighborhood of historic homes in Charleston, S.C.

I spent an entire day in Key West last year, much to the chagrin of my traveling companions. I toured every historic home that opened its doors to the public, including one where poet Robert Frost used to vacation. I was so intrigued with the history and decor - it's an 1830s Caribbean "conch"-style house filled with original furnishings and artifacts from Key West's colorful seafaring history - that the tour guide locked the front door and gave me my very own personal tour.

I particularly like Tampa's annual neighborhood fundraiser tours, like this weekend's Historic Hyde Park Home Tour, because they allow you to traipse through a cornucopia of cool homes in one day, big and small, old and new.

Every single home tour I go on makes me long to drop everything in my life, immediately buy a house and move right into the neighborhood.

Which, in some ways, is the point.

Even though these events usually raise money for a good cause, such as a neighborhood foundation or charity, many tour organizers strive to spur interest in a particular neighborhood or house and get people to buy.

But recently, I couldn't help wondering whether the downturn in the housing market affected these tours in any way.

Were people less likely to go on them because they were staying put and not dreaming anymore, much less buying?

Nope, say the experts.

In fact the opposite is often true.

"In a down market, it's easier to find someone willing to let their house be used as a show house, especially if they want to sell it," says Kim Hanna, executive director of Bolesta Center, an organization dedicated to helping children with hearing loss gain the ability to listen and speak. Hanna, a past president of the Florida Orchestra Guild, helped organize several Florida Orchestra Show Houses in the 1990s. She also coordinated the designers for the Mayfair Charity Showhouse last fall in South Tampa, an event that raised money for Bolesta and the Spring of Tampa Bay.

"It's how fabulous the home is that drives the traffic, not the market," Hanna says of the tour which cost $20 per person, typical of many tours.

"For that you get to see a lot of really great ideas as well as the book of resources," she says. "You also get to dream."

Eric Krause, a Tampa interior decorator and chairman of the 2008 Old Seminole Heights 10th Annual Home Tour on April 6, says a housing downturn is having no impact on the tour. In fact he has seen more volunteers and sponsors than ever.

"It's more or less about people's love of homes," says Krause, who has had three homes on the Old Seminole Heights tour in the past and who was also a featured designer in the 2006 Florida Orchestra Showhouse in Beach Park. "I think these tours open up people's minds to a lot of new ideas and what they can do with their existing home.

The Old Seminole Heights Tour has had as many as 1,500 visitors in recent years.

Sue Paskert, a longtime South Tampa Realtor who was recently featured on an episode of HGTV's House Hunters, says people enjoy looking at homes, no matter the condition of the real estate market. In fact, she says, house tours are a lot like Realtors' open houses: There are regulars who waltz through with no intention of buying. They're just, well, interested in looking around.

Kind of like me.

I'll happily shell out $20 for a ticket but probably never buy into the neighborhood - even in a hot market - though I might seriously daydream about it for a few minutes.

"People are just nosy," Paskert says with a laugh. "They just want to see houses."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.