To Sell the Property, They Throw a Party
Bay Area real estate agents compete for buyers with lavish parties, espresso bars, taco trucks, and chocolate chip cookies. Welcome to the new normal.
Agents Bernie Myers and Debbi DiMaggio hosted a lavish premiere party in Piedmont.
After months of renovation and landscaping, the large gabled Colonial house nestled in the rolling hills of Piedmont is ready to go on the market. But listing agents Bernie Myers and Debbi DiMaggio, both of Highland Partners, have something more exciting planned for its big debut than just the usual open house. On this evening, several hundred people have gathered in the home’s airy foyer, on the veranda, and in the manicured garden, enjoying catered hors d’oeuvres from Just Relish in Emeryville and white wine and champagne from Toast on College Avenue. Servers scuttle among the guests, carrying trays of ahi tuna on cucumber slices garnished with scallions, or warm batches of oven-fresh polenta. Although the raison d’être is ostensibly unveiling the house for potential buyers, the atmosphere is more party than open house.
That’s just what Myers and DiMaggio were hoping for. This is a premiere party, a special event similar to, but distinct from, the traditional open house. While an open house invites the public to come into the home, a premiere party specifically invites neighbors, the people who best know the house, whose presence gives a house a feeling of community.
“It portrayed the house as alive, as a happy home, a lived home, family, hearth, all those things,” DiMaggio said.
The premiere party is one of the tools that East Bay real estate agents are using to stand out in an increasingly crowded and competitive market.
After a long convalescence following the financial crash of 2008, the East Bay housing market has finally recovered, going into overdrive in the first and second quarters of 2012, according to some real estate agents. And while that means good news for anyone looking to sell a house in the East Bay, it means increased competition for listing agents. With the market recovery, there’s also been an uptick in real estate agent applications by professionals looking to get into the field. In October 2013, the California Bureau of Real Estate administered 2,642 salesperson exams to candidates, up from 1,914 the previous October. Although the total number of California agents hasn’t yet reached pre-crash levels, some East Bay agents note that they’ve seen increased competition from new entrants into the field.
“A lot of people who were on the sidelines during the downturn saw the market escalating and didn’t want to miss the boat, so more people jumped into the game,” said Herman Chan, a San Francisco–based Sotheby’s agent who often lists East Bay homes. “This is a very fierce business. Any way to stand out of the sea of monotony is good. When the market is bad, real estate agents stick to what works. Now that times are good, people are trying more creative things to stand out.”
With increasing competition in the field, it’s become more important for agents to find effective ways to stand out from the crowd. Ten years ago, agents experimented with virtual tours and online slide shows. Now, some are using drones to take aerial video of high-end homes in the East Bay, the idea being that any way to give potential buyers a unique and intriguing perspective on a house would be good for closing a sale—and also good for attracting clients. Agents who can come up with wilder ideas for showcasing a home can draw the most clients.
Anne Feste, an Oakland-based realtor with the Grubb Co. Realtors, described such ideas as “unique selling propositions,” a way for listing agents to make themselves more attractive to clients. “Listing agents are looking for tools that every agent might not have and ways to convince sellers to list their home with them,” she said.
To attract eyeballs, some agents have gone beyond the traditional open house—that Sunday-afternoon activity where random members of the public can wander into the house for sale to poke in the closets and pick up a business card—to create entertainment events complete with catered food, fresh cookies, or free music. Berkeley realtor Holly Rose of Marvin Gardens Real Estate bakes fresh chocolate chip cookies when she opens a house for public viewing, creating a cozy, inviting vibe. Herman Chan works with Sotheby’s in-house art curator to display work from local artists in his listed houses, turning an open house into a gallery exhibition. At a previous twilight reception in Piedmont, DiMaggio asked an associate who knew how to play bagpipes to perform (which seemed appropriate, she thought, since the area high school’s mascot is a Highlander).
“One popular variation is the twilight open where an agent will hold open a property with a view as the sun sets,” said Devin Ratoosh, a Berkeley Realtor with Marvin Gardens. “They offer food and drinks and the open house has a laid-back party vibe. Another variation is hiring a food truck or espresso bar to make food and drinks for open house guests at the property. Raffles and prize giveaways are another way to attract guests. There is something to be said for the psychology of a popular open house in reinforcing the desirability of your home.”
Catered lunches, coffee bars, or wine-and-cheese tastings are more likely to be used at premiere parties, where you invite the neighborhood, according to Holly Rose.
“People who buy houses are strategically connected to people already in the neighborhood,” said Rose. “If you get the neighbors talking, you get a nice word-of-mouth ripple. I usually hand out 300 invitations to neighbors and tell them that there will be chocolate chip cookies. They buyer doesn’t know that most of the people there are neighbors, but it helps create an aurora of desirability. It makes them feel the house is alive.”
At the Piedmont premiere party, Myers and DiMaggio sent out invitations to other neighborhood and area residents.
“Since the preview party, we’ve had a couple open houses,” said Myers. “And we’ve seen a number of repeat people who came back with their friends because they wanted to see it again. The premiere party was something the neighbors really loved, so they’re reaching out and telling their friends.”
“Buyers will see the home anyway; anyone looking won’t miss the property,” said DiMaggio. “We could just do another brochure and it wouldn’t get missed. It’s about setting our company apart and not being a cookie-cutter agency. There are millions of real estate agents; everyone knows one. You have to stand out.”