He’s back. He’s buried. He’s upside-down. How perfect. Or, alternatively, how weird.

"He" is of course St. Joseph, the patron of carpenters, who may be buried in a front yard near you at this very moment.

No one seems to know how this tradition got started, nor is there much agreement about the ritual itself. But in essence, the idea is that home sellers bury St. Joseph — in statue form, of course — in the front yard, say a prayer and, voila, a speedy sale is assured, even if their home has been on the market for months at a price that hasn’t been seen in years.

Most of the instructions agree that St. Joe should be buried head first, i.e., upside down, rather than feet first or sideways as in a grave. Whether he should face the street, the for-sale home or the seller’s next residence is open to debate.

The ritual is not new, though homeowners’ faith in its effectiveness tends to be as cyclical as the housing market itself. When homes sell quickly, St. Joe falls out of favor, and when homes sell slowly, suddenly St. Joe is all the rage. These days, his Q-rating is reportedly on the rise.

Incidentally, St. Joseph is not only the patron saint of carpenters, though that seems the most logical explanation of his association with home sellers. He is also the patron of the Catholic Church itself, fathers, social justice and the dying, according to the Catholic.org Web site.

Surprisingly, some homeowners haven’t heard that St. Joseph is the patron of lost causes when it comes to home sales. They’ve remained blissfully unaware of this tradition, and told of it, they scoff in amazement. For the record, the official Catholic Church doesn’t sanction this ritual either.

So why do homeowners persist in this bizarre belief? The answer may be more a matter of superstition than religious faith, says Matt Wallaert, a behavioral psychologist at financial Web site JustThrive.com in New York City. That doesn’t necessarily mean St. Joe isn’t effective. Rather, he might not work the way people think he does.

"I hesitate to say that a superstition has no effect because it does have an effect: It’s just not the effect that is presumed." Wallaert explains. "A superstition can have a placebo effect."

That effect is more in the mind of the seller than the buyer, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. A buried statue might not compel anyone to buy a house, but it could make the make the seller more likely to accept an offer, Wallaert suggests. …CONTINUED

"The effect is not to influence the rest of the world," he says. "It’s to influence us."

The seller’s need to get control of the situation may be part of the effect as well, Wallaert adds.

"Once you put your home on the market, it doesn’t feel like there is a lot that you can do," he says. "You can’t really effect the outcome, so you develop a superstition that allows you to feel like you have some control. Thus the statute."

So why, I asked Wallaert, is the statute supposed to be buried upside-down? And which way is it supposed to face, psychologically speaking?

Again, the answer may be more about the seller than any specific rite.

"A superstition gets established, and then people interpret that however they want to. A case in point is whether the statue should be facing the street or facing the house. Who knows? People go with what makes sense to them," he says.

What’s more, Wallaert says, most of us have a built-in "confirmation bias," which means we "tend to gravitate toward things that confirm our position." If 100 people buried a statute, and 50 of them felt that it worked, that would be totally random, but more people would believe it worked because of this bias. Eventually, all of the houses with a buried St. Joe are either sold (or taken off the market), but we don’t hear much about the houses that were sold without a statue.

"It is a funny tradition," Wallaert concludes. And I think we’d all have to agree with that.

Marcie Geffner is a veteran real estate reporter and former managing editor of Inman News. Her news stories, feature articles and columns about home buying, home selling, homeownership and mortgage financing have been published by a long list of real estate Web sites and newspapers. "House Keys," a weekly column about homeownership, is syndicated in print and on the Web by Inman News. Readers are cordially invited to "friend" the author on Facebook.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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