Wednesday, March 30, 2005

How to sell a house? Try some entertainment

By Kimberly Blanton, Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE -- With the high-end housing market cooling, a realtor in this city knew exactly who should be the headliner at her open house a few blocks from Harvard University: a historian.

More than 100 of the city's well-heeled turned out on a recent weeknight to hear Charles Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission speak about the 162-year-old mansion for sale on Brattle Street. Harvard faculty, retired lawyers, elderly neighbors, and interior designers sipped wine, nibbled on steak and salmon, gossiped about who was there, why the house had no working kitchen, and whether the prior owner really kept pet monkeys.

Sullivan ''was more of a draw than the tenderloin," said Lindsay Allison, the Hammond Real Estate agent, who is co-listing the $10 million property with Sotheby's International Realty Affiliates Inc.

There was a time brokers could simply put a for-sale sign in front of a house in a good neighborhood and wait for an offer. Today, some agents don't just show the house, they put on a show.

The events, called extreme open houses, can revolve around an appearance by a best-selling author, a garage sale, or a fashion show. At a Manhattan penthouse being sold by Donald Trump, a so-called ''psychic psychiatrist" performed what she called ''energy healings." The Donald also made an appearance at the invitation-only affair.

The strategy is starting to take hold in Boston, following a trend that began in Manhattan and Las Vegas. The party-like atmosphere adds flair to a stale property, buzz to a pricey place, and puts a tough sell in a new light.

''It puts energy and attention on to a place," said Wendy Sarasohn, a Corcoran Group broker who favors the approach, and who organized the Trump event.

By Sarasohn's standards, the Cambridge event was not extreme enough. To sell a townhouse in Greenwich Village with a theater attached, the Corcoran Group agent brought in comedians to perform. To sell a place in the meat-packing district with a reflecting pool, she had a channeler seat the guests around the pool and try to contact dead relatives.

She spends as much as $10,000 on her events, a good investment in her image as a broker doing all she can to help clients sell. Of the three dozen extreme open houses she's organized over the past 15 years, she said, about 70 percent of the properties sold as a result.

The typical broker commission is 5 percent of the sale price, which is divided up among the brokers involved and the agencies they work for. On a $2 million property, for example, the total commission would be $100,000, more than enough to pay for even the most lavish open house.

Sarasohn says she started by hiring tarot-card readers to come to market Andy Warhol's place on the Upper East Side in the early 1990s.

Las Vegas event planner Grace Price was at it early, too. She works with agents to attract society by offering for sale at events modern paintings and sculpture by her husband, Nicholas Price. Early this year, she said, she showcased his work in a $7.5 million home for sale in singer Celine Dion's neighborhood on Lake Las Vegas. More than 100 glitterati attended.

Unlike traditional open houses in which potential buyers quickly size up a property, extreme open houses are designed for lingering. They leave guests with a good feeling, which brokers hope will create a buzz in the right circles. ''Clients get bored with just listing the property, getting an open house," Price said. ''I bring people together I know want to network with each other. It's like organizing a good dinner party."

The concept is spreading to the nation's suburbs, where brokers do everything from staging garage sales and charity events to inviting decorators to offer suggestions. In Natick recently, Coldwell Banker agent Maribeth Boisvert hired caterers to whip up appetizers at a home being marketed for $1.02 million to show it is well-laid out for entertaining. ''You've got to make it fun," she said.

Visitors crowded around the granite-topped kitchen island and ate the squash-pecan pastry boats and teriyaki beef sticks, as Amanda Graves, owner of Amanda Cooks!, pulled them from the oven. Next to her, Gary Kalajian of Gary's Gourmet Chocolates dipped fruit slices into a chocolate melter swirling on the counter.

''I would've probably come anyway," but gourmet food ''is definitely another motivator," said Evan Moskovit, reaching for chicken satay.

Extreme open houses are ''going to become more and more common," said Rick Goodwin, publisher of Unique Homes magazine, which coined the term.

The median price for million dollar-plus properties in Boston and its suburbs was $1.445 million in February, virtually unchanged from February 2004, and a 11 percent increase over 2003, when it was $1.25 million, according to MLS Property Information Network. These high-end houses sold in 95 days on average last month, down from 135 days in February 2004.

Karl Case, a Wellesley College economics professor, said brokers may be spending on extreme open houses because Greater Boston homes are no longer selling themselves. ''People are nervous," he said. ''There's all this talk about the housing bubble. Having said that, people have been talking about this bubble for three years."

In Cambridge, as many as 150 people roamed the 15-room house on Brattle Street built in 1843 by Joseph Worcester, who compiled a dictionary. Many were neighbors with multimillion-dollar properties themselves who wanted to see a property that had not been on the market for a half century. The owner was the late William J.J. Gordon, who innovated uniformly shaped potato chips stacked in a cylindrical can, later named Pringles. The property once housed his six children, two monkeys, many dogs and, it's rumored, a llama. Gordon died in 2003, and a trust lawyer is selling the property.

Since relatively few people are in the market for a $10 million house, Hammond Real Estate spent about $5,000 on the party to attract as many people as possible ''to get the word out," Allison said. Said S. Donald Gonson, a retired Hale and Dorr law partner who lives nearby, ''I certainly can't afford it, but I know people who could afford it." Four people who either attended the open house or were invited to it have since asked for private showings, though no offers have been made.

Nathan H.D. Gordon, feels protective of his childhood home and was somewhat uncomfortable with opening it to the public, but concedes the event may have been a necessary, perhaps even clever, way to market it.

It was ''more selective," he said, and did ''not let the riffraff see the house."