After three real-estate agents, two price reductions and nearly a year on the market left them with no offers on their Las Vegas townhouse, George and Katherine Grodin turned to a higher power for help.
They bought a 4-inch plastic figurine of St. Joseph " believed by some to be the patron saint of home and employment " and placed it upside down in their patio with hopes of breaking their home-selling slump.
"I just felt so helpless," said Katherine Grodin, 47. "I needed to do something."
The trick hasn't worked yet for the Grodins, but as the real-estate market has continued to flag, a growing number of the faithful " and the desperate " have embraced the odd ritual of burying St. Joseph to clinch a quick sale.
At the four Elliott's Ace Hardware stores in the Milwaukee area, customers have snapped up more than 182 in the past 12 months, said Scot Stark, manager of the Elm Grove branch there.
Real-estate agents are snapping up "St. Joseph Home Selling Kits" for would-be clients "in both English- and Spanish-language editions. Ronnie Wilson, an agent in Carlsbad, Calif., includes the figurine in her regular marketing kit, along with "For Sale" signs and online advertisements.
She started suggesting that home sellers bury the icons in their front lawns three years ago after hearing about the practice from other real estate agents.
"I do carry a hoe around in my car, in case they want me to do it for them," Wilson said. "Every little bit helps."
The interest in St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus, has a history in the real estate world.
During the busts of the 1980s and 1990s, agents and homeowners revived the tradition, which might date to medieval Europe. As the story goes, a group of nuns received a needed parcel of land for their convent after burying their St. Joseph medallions and praying to the saint for aid.
These days, most people opt for a kit like the ones sold by Philip Cates, a Modesto, Calif.-based mortgage banker and owner of StJosephStatue
.com. He sells an 8-inch model for $13.95.
Typically, the kits include a 3- to 8-inch figurine, a bag to bury it in, instructions and sample prayers. Sellers are advised to bury the figurine beneath a "For Sale" sign or near the entrance of a home.
Once the property sells, tradition calls for the seller to dig up the statue, dust it off and keep it in a place of honor.
And if no one makes an offer?
"Perhaps it's not time to sell," said Cates, who has sold more than a quarter of a million do-it-yourself kits since he launched his mail-order company in 1990.
For some homeowners, the statues stay only as long as it takes for escrow to close. Debra Schneider was having trouble selling her custom-built home three years ago in Columbia County, N.Y., when a neighbor's relative suggested she bury a statue.
"I thought she was kidding me. I told her, 'I'm a Jewish yogi. I don't believe in that,'" said Schneider, 55.
The next day, though, she went and bought a statue, figuring she had little to lose. The house sold.
"Of course, I had lowered the price, which might have helped, too," Schneider said.
But when Schneider decided to pull up stakes again this fall, after her daughter was accepted into an academic program in Chicago, one of the first things she did was bury another St. Joseph statue.
"There's something ritualistic about it that people can connect with," Schneider said. "It's taking a moment to connect with something bigger than ourselves, at a time when most of us feel totally out of control."