Broker Sales Gimmicks: Celeb Chefs, Free Cars

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SAN FRANCISCO (TheStreet) -- While the real estate market has been climbing its way out of the cellar, it still takes more to sell a home than an open house on a Sunday afternoon. Sellers, agents and developers are relying on some innovative approaches to close a sale. Here are a few:

Throw in a celebrity chef. The sleek Web site of the FP3 condominium complex by Boston developer Berkeley Investments features the usual categories: "residences," "neighborhood" and "building." However, one stands out from the others: "Barbara Lynch."

When FP3 was in its planning stages, Berkeley invited Lynch, a renowned chef and restaurateur, to open a bar, a casual eatery and a fine-dining restaurant on the ground floor. The first two, Drink and Sportello, have become gourmand hot spots. The fine dining restaurant was put on hold because of the recession, but is due to open late fall. The condo stresses that "preferred treatment is expected" for diners who live in the building.

"Clearly when Barbara's name comes up, people become very excited about being in the building with her," says Mark Barer, a senior project manager at Berkeley investments. "She has that rock star status."

The celebrity chef tie-in has taken off in San Francisco too. Millennium Partners' new Millennium Tower is home to RN74, a restaurant headed by two-star Michelin chef Michael Mina, who owns a condo in the building. You've probably seen Mina on an episode of "Top Chef " on General Electric's (Stock Quote: GE) Bravo network. RN74 also offers a private dining room exclusively for tower residents, with special menu items.

"The best burger in town is available only to residents," says Rich Baument, managing director for Millennium Partners, adding that the allure of a famous chef has helped sales.

"It gave us instant five-star credibility," Baument says. "We've closed, in a difficult environment, in excess of $130 million in the last four months." Each sale averages $2 million.

Test runs. Last year, Scripps Networks Interactive (Stock Quote: SNI) launched a reality show on its HGTV network called "Sleep on It." The gist: cautious house-hunting families would get to spend 24 hours in a prospective home before deciding whether to buy. In real life, realtors and developers are riffing on the idea.

Real estate investment firm JMA Ventures recently began offering a kick-the-tire program for prospective buyers at Fairmont Heritage Place, a complex of private residences and hotel rooms in San Francisco. Prospective buyers can pay hotel rates for up to 30 days, but if they decide to buy, they get a full refund. While it's not free unless they commit, the program has helped sway fence-sitting home shoppers, says Todd Chapman, managing partner at JMA Ventures.

Twilight tours. Evening tours are becoming more common, especially in cities where neighborhood nightlife is either a draw or a drawback.

"Maybe on a Thursday evening we'll have a twilight tour," says Eamonn O'Callaghan, an agent at Zephyr Real Estate in San Francisco. "They'll want to see the view at night or get a sense of the neighborhood in the evening."

Throw in a car (or a tractor): "Last year, there was someone who was someone who was trying to sell a property and offered a Toyota Prius to the buyer," O'Callaghan says.

Julie Mason Chandler, a realtor at Po Go Realty in Gorham, Maine, says she has seen new cars offered as incentives, as well as flat-screen TVs, boats and lawn tractors. "We work with one builder who is giving away golf club memberships with his age-restricted condo sales," she says.

When the market is slow, many builders will throw in a year's worth of home owners' association fees to tempt buyers, O'Callaghan says.

Set the stage. Staging a home for a prospective sale in a tough economy means not just making a place look good, but appealing to the other four senses too.

"We do a lot of scented sticks in bathrooms in bedrooms," says Linda Premick, who owns the home staging company Linda Premick Design. "Some agents will play classical music in high-priced houses."

And there's always do-it-yourself staging.

Last week, "I saw one that I've never seen before; the sellers bought a new house and moved into it, but left literally everything else behind in their old house, now for sale," says Jim Klinge, a realtor in San Diego. "They had all of their clothes in the closets, the refrigerator and freezer were stocked with food, and there were dishes in the dishwasher." "But I like the pressure it puts on them to sell," Klinge says. "And they did, after having multiple offers, so I guess it worked."

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