Realtors turn to parties to market houses

In February, throngs of people gathered at a $100,000 poolside party in Miami, downing Roberto Cavalli vodka, sampling food from local restaurants and dancing to a DJ blasting hip-hop and house music. Nearly 1,000 more people showed up than expected, sending the hosts scrambling to provide extra booze and triggering noise complaints from neighbors.

It wasn’t a wedding or a birthday bash. The swanky event – designed with a film theme, with a red carpet and a giant movie screen – was hosted by the Related Group, a luxury developer, to get people to see, and eventually buy, apartments in its new 1,000-unit complex.

“I was nervous when I saw how many people had shown up,” admits Ricardo Vadia, an assistant vice president of development for the company. “But it was well worth it. We got people into the buildings who otherwise wouldn’t have come.”

Welcome to the open-house on steroids. Home-baked cookies are out. Designer drinks, opera singers and Cinco-de-Mayo theme parties are in. Despite sluggish home sales in most of the country, some Realtors and developers are sinking money into open-house parties that they hope will draw crowds – and an eventual buyer.

Realtors have always tried various tactics to make homes more appealing during open houses by, for example, hiring experts to “stage” the home, arranging furniture and accessories to look stylish and inviting. These days, while some Realtors and developers have abandoned or scaled back on open houses, others see swanky and creative parties key to capturing sales.

Nora Sandoval, a Realtor in San Jose, Calif., shows off homes by creating the feel of a neighborhood cocktail party, with the added bonus of live guitar music or opera soloists, and encourages invitees to bring friends. Pennsylvania real-estate broker Chris Talone has thrown French or English-theme events, earlier this year serving tea at an English Tudor home and donning a French maid costume at a French style property. Wendy J. Sarasohn, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group in New York City, hosts theme parties at her listed properties – including one for Oscar night – and insists the caterer send “very attractive waiters.”

“Eye candy is good,” she says. Attractive waiters, cocktails and good food, she adds, can help put people “in a mood to buy.”

That’s the goal in a real-estate market that remains sluggish. Existing-home sales fell 2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.93 million, according to the National Association of Realtors. Home sales were down 19.3 percent from the 6.11-million-unit pace recorded in March 2007.

To be sure, in neighborhoods overrun with foreclosures or where sales are especially slow, Realtors don’t have the money to spend on lavish soirees. And some Realtors frown on open houses in any form, saying they are a waste of time and purely the domain of serial lookers and nosy neighbors. In this market, especially, they doubt parties will result in a sale.

And there are downsides to the party crowds. At the Miami affair, for example, a floor tile was broken, drinks were spilled on furniture, and the model apartments needed to be cleaned after dozens of people traipsed through. The parties can also prompt complaints.

Indeed, some neighborhoods are cracking down on the events and the open-house groupies they can attract. Andrea Tice, president of a homeowners association in Topanga, Calif., says things “got acrimonious” with local Realtors when numerous open-house events drew cars to her street and blocked people’s driveways.

In Wayne County, Mich., officials noticed that dozens of signs directing people to open houses created traffic pile-ups and visual clutter, so last year they banned the signs on major roads and put an overall limit of five signs per house in a neighborhood. In an upscale suburb outside of Chicago, the Prestwick Homeowners Association has cracked down on other over-the-top tactics to get attention for an open house. About a month ago, an agent was asked to take down an inflatable goose, and another, to get rid of dozens of fluttering flags and balloons.

“I understand they wanted to sell the house,” says Jim Nolting, the association’s president. “But it looked like a used car dealership.”

Still some Realtors and developers are willing to court criticism and say the current climate makes festive open houses all the more important, despite the cost and other drawbacks.

“The more eyes on the house, the better,” says Ms. Sandoval of San Jose.

In New York City, Ms. Sarasohn, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, says parties that show off a property are a great way to get people to see a space without having to make “a hard sell.”

In December, she combined a book party for an author friend at a property on Park Avenue that had been sitting on the market. Waiters offered Godiva chocolates on silver platters, and goodie bags included gift certificates for hair treatments and manicures. She invited guests to bring their dogs (but only leashed or carried), playing off the children’s book “Chocolate at the Four Seasons,” about a Chihuahua that stays at the luxury hotel.

Ms. Talone, the Pennsylvania broker who dressed up as a French maid for one event, says themed open houses are memorable for agents and potential buyers – and get them talking about the house to people they know. Last year, for a split-level home outside of Philadelphia that she said had “some deficiencies,” she adopted the theme of the television show “House M.D.” She dressed up as a nurse, and her husband was the show’s doctor, giving out candy as “medicine.” She says the home sold within a week.

Broker and remodeler Steve Herbert, who specializes in midcentury, modern homes in Austin, Texas, through his company Vintage Modern Homes, puts on lounge music, serves finger food and presents open houses as gallery openings, displaying local artists’ work. He says one way to distinguish his homes in the local market is by pitching a chic and social lifestyle, not just a house. “We are creating an image that it’s an entertainer’s paradise,” he says.

With the party-like atmosphere, some people become regular open-house goers, even if they aren’t looking for a house. Judy George-Garza, a historic preservationist in Austin, first came to one of Mr. Herbert’s parties about a year ago, after coming across his Web site, She wasn’t in the market to buy a home, but given her interest in preservation, she wanted to see the updates on the house. She’s now been to at least six of the events.

“I’m there, walking around, holding a drink, looking at art and talking to different folks,” she says. “I’ve seen the same people and gotten to know them on a first-name basis.”

Even if open-house events don’t promise an immediate buyer, Realtors such as Ms. Sandoval say that developing a network of regular attendees can reap benefits in the long term. That was the case with Tomas Diaz, a 37-year-old financial manager, who was initially invited by a friend to one of Ms. Sandoval’s parties in a home for sale. He became friendly with Ms. Sandoval and made it a point to attend her other real-estate parties regularly, looking forward to the artichoke-jalapeno dip, some wine and the music.

Soon after, Mr. Diaz attended one of the parties in a three-bedroom townhouse that was on the market for about $700,000. On an impulse, he decided to buy. “I wasn’t really looking, I wasn’t in the market for a house,” he says. “But the place just appealed to me.”