Builder-developer Steve Hermann does not use that phrase, but this is how he describes the phenomenon: "I have houses where real estate agents will come in, look around and say, 'Oh, this is a midcentury modern and my client is looking for a Spanish,' and they won't show their client this house. Then I have an open house, and the client is driving by. They'll walk in and all of a sudden, they will fall in love with the house even though it's not what they think they wanted. They react emotionally, and then whatever they thought they wanted goes out the window.... The only way to get someone emotionally involved is go get them inside the house."
While $1-million homes used to be considered "estates," they are now so common they don't even rank a special name. It takes a price tag of $2 million to be considered an estate these days. And the new million dollars is $5 million -- a "breaking point" as Respondek describes it. In the last few years, he says with understatement, "the bar has been raised." In the Pacific Palisades neighborhood known as the Riviera, south of Sunset Boulevard between Amalfi and Capri drives, it's not unheard of to sell a $5-million tear-down.
Most open houses in the $5-million-and-up range are not likely to be occupied by an owner. And an empty house always presents a challenge to sellers, given the conventional wisdom that prospective buyers want to see a furnished place. When an expensive house is empty, owners usually hire a company to "stage" it, giving the illusion of occupancy.
Some agents will gently persuade sellers to move an entire houseful of furniture into storage and pay many thousands of dollars to make their home more presentable by staging it with rented furniture and paintings. Last Sunday, in the Huntington section of Pacific Palisades, real estate agent Bill Kerbox was holding an open house for the second week in a row at a dramatic contemporary Craftsman. The first open house drew about 200 people. Even though the $5,595,000 house is occupied by the owners and their three small children, Kerbox had persuaded them to stage it at a cost of about $20,000 for three months. "They weren't very happy about it," Kerbox says.
Yet this would explain why the slipcovers on the oversized sofas in the family room were pristine white. The children's numerous bright, plastic yard toys had all been shoved out of sight to the side of the house, and Kerbox himself had put an $8,000 plasma screen TV and sound system into the finished basement rec room to turn it believably into a home theater. After the property sells, he says, he'll take the TV home. The owners also spent $1,000 to show the house via a virtual tour on its own website (www.341almareal.com)
The modified ranch on Kimberly Lane (owned by Ryan Scott, a partner in PostMaster Direct, a targeted direct e-mail network) has been staged by a company called Designed to Move, whose motto is "property enhancement for the real estate market." For about $30,000, the firm has completely furnished Scott's home, picking up on what Eisenberg calls its "Zen-like vibe."
A real estate agent whom Eisenberg recognizes strolls through the house and stops in the kitchen (side-by-side Sub-Zeroes). "Good staging," says the agent, who declines to give his name. "It's accessible. People come in and they're not frightened, it's not too over their taste level. Sometimes if things are done really well, people find it scary -- 'I couldn't possibly live here.' This place is a little above Pottery Barn, but not much.
"The only thing you could do to make it better," he adds, "is that you should put some clothes in the closet to fake that somebody actually lives here."
Eisenberg shrugs. "I like seeing closets empty so people can walk in and actually visualize how much space they'll have."
Ever so picky
A few minutes later, Gremi and Selwyn Joffe pull up in their Mercedes sedan. The Joffes have been searching for a new home for quite a while, not atypical for people in this range.
"My parameters? I prefer to be with nice, upscale people, in a neighborhood with lots of kids around 'cause I've got two," says Gremi Joffe. Her family has outgrown its home at the top of Westridge Road in Brentwood, but she says she has been spoiled by her spectacular views. She and her husband, a former business partner of Wolfgang Puck who is CEO of an automobile parts manufacturing firm, were on their way home when they noticed the flags, and decided to stop. Later, she says that it's the first house they've seen that her husband could imagine living in.
"I thought it was beautifully appointed," she says, "but for $5 million? Forget about it. I don't think it's worth $5 million.... I don't want to be house poor. We live a nice life and I don't want to compromise that for a stupid house. What I see out there for $3 and $4 [million], I saw three years ago for a million and a half. And it's rubbish."