The Art of the Open House

Step right up. Come one, come all. Lobster rolls! Live music! Free iPads!       

With distractions aplenty and about 100 open houses a week, South Fork real estate agents have had to hawk their events with come-ons worthy of P.T. Barnum to lure other agents to open houses. Even the balloons, festooned to signs, give open houses a circus atmosphere.

There are two kinds of open house: for customers and for other agents. Open houses for customers take place on weekends, when most prospects are around, while those for agents are on weekdays, when agents aren’t as busy showing customers properties. It is for the latter that most ploys are used.

“You don’t want to tempt buyers with nonsense,” said Jennifer Linick of Halstead Property. “You want buyers to come because they have an interest in the house.”

Gimmicks used to lure agents have run the gamut from offers of free spa treatments to croquet tournaments. Winners of free gifts are determined by business card drawings. It’s imperative to get other agents to open houses because “Brokers show what they know,” according to Chris Chapin of Douglas Elliman. Mr. Chapin admits to only attending open houses where food is served, not a rare occurrence. Most open houses have at least a sandwich or so awaiting hungry agents.

He recounted a time when he went to an open house serving iced tea and granola bars. He remembers thinking, “Wow, this house is a great deal.” So, a couple of weeks later when a customer asked him for the best deal on the market, he immediately thought of the property, and brokered the sale. The only reason it occurred to him was that he’d attended the open house.

“Most agents sell through a co-broke,” Patrick McLaughlin of Elliman said. “My job is to get as many brokers there as possible.” Mr. McLaughlin, known to other agents as “the king of the open house,” has done everything from holding wine tastings to giving away iPads to lure brokers. Two of hisevents had particularly successful turnouts, one an author signing for a book called “Tan Lines: Sand, Surf, and Secrets,” written by a friend of his, the other a feast from Joe’s Stone Crab, which he had flown in from Miami.

Because of intense competition in the local market, he said, a turnout of 25 is “good these days.” Does he go to open houses himself? “I make the effort to go to open houses of brokers who go to mine.”

In the past couple of weeks there have been quite a few open houses offering incentives. Nanette Hansen of Sotheby’s International Realty offered $100 gift certificates to the East Hampton Grill to agents who attended hers last week at a house on Springy Banks Road in East Hampton asking $975,000. It was attended by about a dozen agents, a number that she said was “pretty good,” considering it was on a Friday. That is a day when “agents are typically running around getting ready for their weekend customers.” Bill Williams, also of Sotheby’s, won the certificate.

Ann Ciardullo of Sotheby’s held a putting and chipping contest — “equipment supplied!” — for a “Zen retreat” asking $2.795 million on Beechwood Court in Northwest, East Hampton, designed by Bates Masi Architects of Sag Harbor.

Robin Kaplan of Douglas Elliman held two open houses, each offering a $50 gift certificate for BookHampton, to see her listing on Chatfield’s Ridge Road in East Hampton, a 2.6-acre property bordered by a reserve, asking $4 million. Ms. Kaplan has owned bookstores and is a proponent of the non-digital form of the medium. The first one attracted 4 agents, the second 13. The heavier turnout at the second might have been a result of her sending out an email blast announcing the winner of the first one — Ms. Linick. Ms. Linick purchased a book by Peter Beard that cost $70, an extra boon for the local business.

If given a choice between attending an open house with or without an incentive, agents will almost invariably choose the one with the free food or possibility of an iPad. But they also want to see the properties.

“Knowing the inventory is the hardest part of my business and the easiest not to do,” Ms. Linick said. “It’s also the easiest to remedy.” She holds open houses “as often as I can,” and always serves food. On Saturday she made a goat cheese, prosciutto, potato, and rosemary frittata and banana coffee cake. When she supplies sandwiches by Luigi’s, a popular East Hampton deli, she makes sure to broadcast that.

Some agents are not huge fans of over-the-top enticements. “At end of the day, the product lures them to the property, not the food,” said Robert Tramondo of Saunders. Of course, that doesn’t stop him and his business partner, Vince Horcasitas, from serving lunch. They held a recent open house for a “very special” waterfront rental property on Old Mill Road in Water Mill asking just shy of $10 million. Food and drinks were supplied by Janis Bronstein of Citibank. Mortgage brokers traditionally supply food in order to network with brokers.

Ms. Hansen tries to hold open houses for her listings every two weeks. Even if turnout is low, she still gets the listing in front of brokers’ eyeballs by way of an email invitation.

There are many reasons to hold a broker open house, according to Ms. Hansen. It’s especially effective when you have a listing “that for one reason or another has not gotten a lot of interest.” That could be because agents weren’t able to attend previous showings as a result of tight schedules, or because they didn’t have customers in that category, so it wasn’t on their radar.

In the case of the house on Springy Banks, it had been on the market in the past at a higher price. “Agents think they know a listing,” Ms. Hansen said, “but they need to come see it again when it’s at its best with the garden in bloom.”

Open houses are deemed so crucial that competing agencies actually coordinate open houses so that they are held near one another for ultimate convenience. At one point, certain days were designated to certain areas, but that never caught on, Ms. Linick said.

Most agents agree that open houses work. Sometimes they’re seen as acts of desperation, however. “You can always tell those by how long they’ve been on the market,” said Kieran Brew of Brown Harris Stevens, who holds open houses “as often as I get a new or noteworthy listing.” But if it’s a worthwhile listing, he believes it will be well attended.

“If you add lunch you might get a few extra people,” he said. “I don’t really think open houses sell properties. They are only as good as the listing.”