|Fall Real Estate 2002
Publication Date: Wednesday, October 16, 2002
by Katy Chase
When David Solnick hung the for-sale sign in front of the $2+ million house he designed in Barron Park, he knew better than to expect an instant offer.
"The market is always bad in August, because people are on
vacation and they're thinking about other things," said Solnick,
a Palo Alto architect and developer. "But it was especially
bad this August, worse than it has been in several years."
Solnick and others working in a somewhat sluggish real-estate market
are trying to alleviate the anxiety tugging at potential buyers
with marketing strategies meant to set their homes a notch above
Part of Solnick's game plan is billing the Whitsell Avenue house
that went on the market six weeks ago as an "anti-monster home"
- one that draws neighbors' praise rather than their outrage.
"Developers have a bad name," said Solnick, who used to be a molecular biologist before becoming an architect and then a developer. "They tear nice houses down, and they build things that piss people off."
Part of successful marketing is making prospective buyers feel good about what they're doing, he said. Rather than worrying that they're swooping down to encroach upon comfortable neighbors - an all-too-familiar scene - buyers should feel they're moving into an appropriately scaled home that fits in with the neighborhood and its residents.
"It's very sensitive to the neighborhood. That's part of the
pitch, and it's really held up," said Solnick, adding that
nearly 2,000 people have come through the two-story house since
it went on the market in mid-July. "A tremendous number of
neighbors have come through and really liked it." Several Barron
Park residents have e-mailed him with the ultimate compliment -
asking him to design a house on their streets.
"The way you make houses feel like they belong is really considering
the site," said Solnick, who based his modern "comfortable
contemporary" design on the movement of the sun.
Besides the home's modest appearance from the street with no sidewalk,
visitors have also appreciated its emphasis on environmentally friendly
methods and materials - another feature Solnick has been eager to
plug in an area so "green" conscious.
He and building partner Kirk Welton of Welton Construction, also
based in Palo Alto, hired a firm to dismantle by hand the house
that used to occupy the lot. Almost all of the materials were recycled
or resold, from the wooden framing down to the gravel from the tar-and-gravel
roof. And the lot still boasts the three sprawling oak trees that
have been growing there for decades.
Signs in the spacious kitchen call attention to its counter tops,
which are made from recycled glass and concrete. Other "green"
aspects include an energy-saving whole-house fan rather than air
conditioning and pre-wiring for photovoltaic panels to generate
electricity from the sun.
Three-dimensional graphics help visitors to fully visualize the
structure of the house, which boasts a vaulted great room and kitchen
in the front before opening to two stories of more private space
in the rear.
Another way to entice potential buyers is by illustrating some
of their options, Solnick said. A set of 3-D graphics in the master
bedroom shows how the wall separating it from an adjacent room can
be partially or completely removed to create one large suite. The
wall was purposely constructed with no plumbing and hardly any wiring
for easy removal.
Similarly, the front wall of the detached cottage in the rear can
easily be removed if the buyer would prefer to use it as a second
Helping potential buyers envision their ideas as reality has been
crucial to broker Michael Blomquist, who took the strategy to an
extreme while attempting to sell a home in the dried-up market following
Sept. 11, 2001.
He marketed a $2.1 million home on Oakhurst Avenue in Los Altos
as "new construction you can customize," offering the
buyer the chance to select the finishing touches including floorings,
counter tops, landscaping and interior paint.
"A lot of buyers out there have a tough time envisioning things,"
said Blomquist, who hired artist Cristina Acosta to add artistic
touches to exterior walls, interior finishes and skylights and breathe
energy into idea boards posted throughout the house. Blomquist also
heavily advertised the home's options on www.resourcerealty.com,
the Web site for his company, Michael Scott Properties.
Jumpstarting the creative process seemed to work: The home sold
in October after fewer than three months on the troubled market.
The rest of the work on the house was completed within three weeks.
Still, Blomquist said the semi-custom approach isn't one he would
recommend to other brokers.
"It worked out really well, but I don't think I would use
it as a general practice," he said, adding that he's heard
plenty of horror stories about buyers who kept changing their minds
after materials had already been purchased. "I would rather
do full-on custom, (or have them) just buy it at the very end."
Nancy Goldcamp, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker, has found that marketing
a home to other real estate agents (who might direct their clients
there) is just as important as showing its potential to buyers.
Looking to demonstrate the appeal of a Redwood City property to
agents who might otherwise have been skeptical, Goldcamp hired executive
limousines to chauffer them to the house, where she treated them
to brunch along with the standard tour.
"I wanted to show that this Redwood Shores property was a
fabulous deal compared to Palo Alto and Menlo Park," she said.
"It's important that it's well-presented not only to the public,
but also to the other agents."
With so many properties crowding the market, it often takes a creative
touch to capture agents' attention. Goldcamp sometimes holds raffles
at her showings, giving a $100 Nordstrom gift certificate to the
winner. Or maybe the first 25 agents to arrive will get a complimentary
bottle of wine. If the yard is beautiful but could easily be bypassed,
she might serve her trademark scones there to draw attention.
"You need to get them to look at the house and get them to
remember it," Goldcamp said. The same principle applies to
potential buyers, although they often need an extra push to envision
putting their own touches on a property.
"We try to leave less to the imagination, because many people
can't really imagine" the possibilities, Goldcamp said. She
frequently posts sketches for possible additions and tries to provide
permit history and building requirements for the home, "so
people know what their options are."
While many marketing tactics work for any property, some homes
call for a tailor-made presentation. Goldcamp is marketing a fixer-upper
Professorville home built in the 1920s as a heritage property that
just needs some tender loving care.
"Technically, it can be torn down, and the lot can be subdivided,"
she said of the home, which hasn't been on the market since a family
moved into it 70 years ago. "But we're not marketing it that
way. We're advertising it as a home that has some feeling and has
She is arranging to have a floor plan available for potential buyers
(the originals have been lost), and she plans to hire a writer to
create a brochure detailing the home's place in history.
While she's constantly cooking up creative ways to drive sales,
Goldcamp said she doesn't think the market is in a slump.
"A lot of people think the market is really bad right now, but it's just fine," Goldcamp said.