The Open House Goes Over the Top

More than 250 guests gathered at a home in Los Angeles’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood last fall. Models swam in the pool, guests attired in all-white drank mojitos and a singer strummed an acoustic guitar. The guest of honor: the 11,000-square-foot New England whitewashed-brick house, which would hit the market days later for $16.95 million.

Ranging from five-course dinners to poolside fashion shows, real estate house parties have become the latest way for agents to show off new listings. Photo: Alexander Ali/Society Group

Ranging from five-course dinners to poolside fashion shows, real estate house parties have become the latest way for agents to show off new listings. Photo: Alexander Ali/Society Group

As luxury home prices edge into record territory in some areas, traditional wine-and-cheese open houses are being replaced with five-course meals, poolside fashion shows and living-room concerts. Agents and developers, looking to stand out from the competition, are in some cases spending tens of thousands of dollars on these over-the-top open houses—prices once reserved for the launches of luxury condo buildings.

“Parties have become a big part of the marketing program,” says Joyce Rey, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based agent with Coldwell Banker Previews International. She and her colleague, Stacy Gottula, say they showed up at an event a couple of weeks ago where a tennis pro played on the home’s court and a therapist offered free massages in the home’s spa.

Last fall, a Hamptons style “White Party” was held in honor of a New England whitewashed-brick house in the Pacific Palisades that was about to hit the market for $16.95 million. Photo: Alexander Ali/Society Group

Last fall, a Hamptons style “White Party” was held in honor of a New England whitewashed-brick house in the Pacific Palisades that was about to hit the market for $16.95 million. Photo: Alexander Ali/Society Group

An entertainment publicist who has worked with celebrities and lifestyle companies, Alexander Ali says he’s recently begun working with real estate clients as well. He says the all-white themed party in Pacific Palisades was inspired by hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Hamptons White Party, and meant to highlight the seven-bedroom home’s traditional Hamptons look.

“No one wants wine and cheese platters anymore,” Mr. Ali says. The party generated about 10 follow-up showings but is still on the market.

The party included models swimming in the pool, live music and guests attired in white. Photo: Alexander Ali/Society Group

The party included models swimming in the pool, live music and guests attired in white. Photo: Alexander Ali/Society Group

Sellers are often hesitant to embrace the idea. Many homeowners “feel their homes are very exclusive,” says Ms. Rey. “They don’t want some kind of event to attract attention.” F. Ron Smith, the Pacific Palisades home’s listing agent, says that when he first brought up the white party idea to his clients, developers and designers Greg and Grace Shain, they “had trepidations” about having such a large gathering at a home they’d just spent months gut renovating to sell.

And the bigger and more elaborate the party, the bigger the bill. The event cost about $30,000; the cost was split between Mr. Smith and the Shains. Agents say that such events can range upward of $100,000 for the most elaborate affairs. Sometimes agents pony up; other times they split the cost with sellers.

Agents are also enlisting co-sponsors to offset costs and expand the guest list beyond their own Rolodex. The White Party’s sponsors included champagne maker Moët & Chandon, Patron and Maserati of Beverly Hills, which provided valet parking. Gregg Lynn, a San Francisco-based agent, asked First Republic to throw a party in 2011 for a $35 million penthouse; the private bank invited its high net worth clients. Agents Ms. Rey and Ms. Gottula say one recent event they staged was co-sponsored by luxury car maker Bentley and included its vehicles.

Agents also try to come up with a “hook” or theme that will attract guests and show the home off to its best advantage. Last year, Ryan Serhant, a real-estate agent who appears on Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing New York,” had a listing for a two-bedroom condominium asking for $2.595 million. The unit had high ceilings, wide-plank wood floors and a major flaw: Many of its windows open to a brick wall.

Mr. Serhant says he decided to spend roughly $10,000 throwing a 10 p.m. “after-hours glow-in-dark” rave in the apartment. He says the condo sold for $2.5 million to a partygoer, “a stockbroker who works 120 hours a week” and is rarely at home during the day.

In Miami, Sotheby’s agent Daniel de la Vega last week hosted a “social media” crawl to launch four different single-family homes to the market; each home had food and wine from a different region. Laura Stace at the second home. Photo: Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

In Miami, Sotheby’s agent Daniel de la Vega last week hosted a “social media” crawl to launch four different single-family homes to the market; each home had food and wine from a different region. Laura Stace at the second home. Photo: Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

A couple of years ago Amy Faxon put her 4,000-square-foot apartment on the Upper East Side on the market for $8.25 million. Listing agent Wendy Sarasohn of Brown Harris Stevens suggested hosting a party featuring author Jill Kargman, whom she was friendly with. Guests ate cupcakes as Ms. Kargman read an excerpt from her novel “The Rock Star in Seat 3A.”

The home sold for $8.15 million; Ms. Faxon says she isn’t sure if the buyer attended the event. “The point isn’t really that you’re going to find a buyer from the people who are invited, but through the people who were,” she says.

Ms. Sarasohn says she has been coming up with events to fit the personality of her listings for years. This past October, she hosted a Halloween-themed haunted history neighborhood tour for a listing near Washington Square Park, guided by a local historian. Rain forced the event inside, where Ms. Sarasohn dressed like a good witch and handed out candy.

She says it takes creativity to come up with something that will get guests to show up. “At the end of the day, most people want to go home,” she says.

Mr. de la Vega, pictured here, says the event was a success—several people used the event’s hashtag and posted the tour on their blogs. Photo: Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. de la Vega, pictured here, says his event was a success—several people used the event’s hashtag and posted the tour on their blogs. Photo: Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

One potential pitfall is that the crowds an event draws can distract from the main attraction. Mr. Serhant, the New York-based agent, says he learned that the hard way when he planned an afterparty for a designer during Fashion Week at a loft-like property he was marketing. Nearly 700 people showed up; many were unable to get into the home. “It was just a bunch of drunk people,” he says. “It became a total disaster.”

It is no coincidence that hype-generating house parties have blossomed in an era of social media. Last week in Miami, Sotheby’s agent Daniel de la Vega hosted a “social media” crawl to launch four different single-family homes to the market. The event had its own hashtag and signs encouraging attendees to share pictures with friends and followers.

Chauffeured by luxury buses, a group of about 30 agents spent about an hour at each home, which range in price from $3.2 million to $13.5 million. Each home had food and wine from a different region (one featured Napa Valley, another featured vintages from Tuscany). Mr. de la Vega says the event was a success—several people used the hashtag and posted the event on their blogs. “It’s not really standard for agents to go to an open house and start tweeting,” he says.

Published by Candace Jackson of The Wall Street Journal on realtor.com.

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