Lights! Camera! Real Estate!

Tune in. Real estate pros put the visibility and glamour of television to work for their business.

April 1, 2006

“People just love having a chance to look inside somebody else’s house,” says Melissa Sykes, senior vice president of program production at HGTV, the national cable channel, summing up the explosion of real estate television shows in recent years.

Indeed, it seems that every time you turn on the TV, another salesperson or designer is explaining the intricacies of real estate to a wide-eyed buyer or seller (see page 60 for our interview with Suzanne Whang, host of HGTV’s “House Hunters”).

“Real estate is the new stock market,” says Michael Morrison, senior producer at A&E, another national cable channel with a number of real estate shows in its lineup. “There’s an insatiable appetite for everything real estate–related.”

Still, many real estate professionals are wondering whether, and how, to jump on what is starting to seem a fairly crowded bandwagon. Is cable television a force practitioners will need to contend with in the future?

“As a blanket statement, it’s hard to say TV is a good thing or a bad thing,” says Greg Herder, CEO of Hobbs/Herder Advertising in Newport Beach, Calif. “It depends on the market and the practitioner and how he or she uses it. For many practitioners, television makes no difference. But in certain markets, it could be a huge advantage.”

If you want to make a name for yourself on the small screen—whether through paid programming or a reality TV stint—your opportunities are limited only by your imagination. What follows are accounts of how four real estate professionals are using television to their advantage. Their approaches vary widely, but all have expanded their business in ways that would have been impossible without television exposure.

Rhode Island’s minute-men

Matt Phipps of Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I., just wants is a minute of viewers’ time.

Every week, Phipps and his father, Ron, tape a 60-second commentary that airs 14 times a day on Saturdays and Sundays as part of the local cable news broadcast.

“It’s not a typical commercial where we’re trying to sell the product outright,” says Matt Phipps. “Our goal is to inform and educate Rhode Island’s general public about what’s going on in real estate.”

Make no mistake: Phipps pays for the spots—$500 per week to Cox Communications, the local cable provider. But the father-and-son commentaries are presented in a way that blurs the distinction between advertising and editorial.

Toward the end of the newscast, an announcer says, “And now our ‘Real Estate Minute’ presented by Phipps Realty.”

“It’s very conversational,” says Phipps. “We come up with a topic and then I ask Ron a few rapid-fire questions about it.”

“Real Estate Minute” made its debut last September. Since then, the father and son have discussed everything from the lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island to the much-analyzed national real estate “bubble.”

The Phippses use as a backdrop a large photo of one of the company’s listings. During the sign-off, Matt Phipps, using his best public television voice, says “If you have questions about homes like the one behind me, log onto PhippsRealty.com.” At the end, the photo is replaced by a list of upcoming open houses.

The goal, of course, is to position Phipps Realty and its associates as real estate experts concerned with the well-being of the entire community.

This approach gets high marks from advertising experts. “The worst thing you can do on TV is come off as an aggressive closer,” says Hobbs/Herder Advertising’s Herder. “People don’t necessarily call the most educated or qualified salesperson. They call the one with whom they feel the most comfortable. If, in one minute, you come across as friendly and as someone viewers can relate to, and then there’s some brand identity at the end, it can be very effective.”

“It definitely raises our profile,” says Phipps. “We’re a pretty small company—we never have more than 35 listings in our office—but I’m recognized all the time as the guy who does the ‘Real Estate Minute.’ Last week, I had a call from a guy who wanted to list with us because he liked the way we handled ourselves on TV.”

Phipps says the “Minute” is by far the most cost-effective component of the company’s advertising efforts. “If we had gone the route of making a regular commercial, it would have been very expensive because we would have had to pay to air it on different channels in different markets,” he says. “But this is a one-time fee, and it reaches virtually everyone in the state.”

Image plays on small screen

Five years ago, Carl Cole of Bakersfield, Calif., was learning the ropes in a subdivision sales office. His partner, David Crisp, was splitting his time between real estate and a part-time job as a waiter.

Then they formed Crisp & Cole Real Estate, a firm that has had the kind of explosive growth one associates more with oil strikes or winning the lottery than with building a real estate business. Last year, the company had annual sales of $250 million.

The Bakersfield market’s 30-plus percent appreciation rate in each of the past two years had something to do with their dramatic rise. But part of their success—maybe the largest part—is due to the pair’s use of cable television advertising to establish a glamorous, upscale image.

Two years ago, Crisp and Cole created an in-house, three-person production company that turns out a steady stream of 30-second spots and half-hour infomercials that run just about every day of the week on local television. “The production company cost about $100,000 to set up,” says Cole, adding each commercial and infomercial costs about $15,000 to produce. “We financed it initially by using equity lines on our houses.”

The 30-second spots are mainly image-driven while the infomercials focus on listings. Almost from the beginning, image has been paramount. A recent 30-second spot hyped the fact the company uses a private jet to fly certain clients in and out of the market. “We typically dress in black-and-white business attire and all of our salespeople drive BMWs or Mercedes,” says Cole. “It knocks people’s socks off.”

The infomercials are hosted by Julie Farmer, the firm’s chief operations officer, and provide brief views of up to 70 listings. This kind of billboard show is, of course, ubiquitous in the industry. What distinguishes Crisp & Cole’s version are the production values.

“We light all the candles in the house, put a fire in the fireplace, make sure the ceiling fan is turning, and use extra lights if we have to,” says Cole. The camerawork is also notable. “We have a boom that allows for high and low angles and also lets the camera swoop around. It really makes the listing pop.”

Overall, the company spends about $1 million a year in advertising with most of it going to television. “People want to see that you’re successful, and you can convey that much better on TV than you can in print,” says Cole.

Show them the inventory

For some, a commercial or cable show just isn’t enough. Such is the case for Shorewest, REALTORS®, in Milwaukee. “Our goal is to be a local version of HGTV,” says Joe Horning, president of Shorewest, describing Shorewest TV, the 24-hour cable channel the company launched last October.

Believed to be the first local all-real estate channel in the country, Shorewest TV showcases the company’s listings around the clock and also provides information on subjects such as mortgages and home builders.

The rationale for the channel is simple, says Horning. “People want more immediacy when it comes to listings. The newspaper comes out on Sunday, which means whatever ad you run has to be submitted by Wednesday morning, which means the newest properties and price changes aren’t there. With TV and the Internet, you can make these changes as they happen.”

The channel’s programming schedule is organized according to community and price and changes daily. “If you tune in every evening at seven, you won’t see the same show twice in the same week,” says Horning.

The “shows,” in the main, are brief video tours of listings, hosted by a local Milwaukee television personality. “We have enough listings that they don’t repeat within a day,” says Horning, whose company was No. 26 in REALTOR® Magazine’s 2005 “Top 100 Companies” ranking by transaction sides (July 2005, page 33). “We tell sellers that their house will be featured 15 to 30 times a month.”

Shorewest TV is made possible by an innovative software program developed by Milwaukee-based Rainmakers Marketing. The software recycles images and information from Shorewest’s Web site into television shows.

“The content of the listings is already done,” says Horning. “The sales associates turn in photos and copy for the Web site, and then we put the information on TV. The only things we’re adding are community information and a few special segments.”

Rainmakers handles the administration of the channel and charges Shorewest’s salespeople $20 a month for broadcasting their listings. It also makes money by selling commercial time on the channel to real estate–related companies such as movers.

“What we’ve done,” says Roger Scommegna, president of Rainmakers, “is develop an inexpensive format to present homes and give salespeople the opportunity to connect with consumers. We make our money with commercials. They make money because of the increased traffic.”

Although Shorewest TV viewership isn’t measured—doing so would involve paying a fee to a company such as A.C. Nielsen Co.—Horning says he’s pleased with the results.

“It’s new and different,” he says. “We gauge success by the number of calls coming in where people say they saw a property on TV or they want to list with us because we have a cable channel.”

Rehab reality on display

Two years ago, Richard C. Davis was investigating the possibility of franchising his company, Trademark Properties, a full-service Charleston, S.C., brokerage with an investment division specializing in renovating blighted homes.

“I didn’t want to do it one office at a time,” Davis says. “I needed a way to reach a lot of potential franchisees very quickly.”

That, he says, was the inspiration for “Flip This House,” an hour-long reality show on the A&E network that made its debut this past summer and has emerged as a break-out hit in the increasingly crowded line-up of real estate shows.

Every week, upwards of 2 million viewers tune in to watch Davis and his harried staff at Trademark buy, renovate, and resell yet another distressed property. “I haven’t changed anything about the way I do business,” says Davis. “I give myself two weeks to get in, get out, and go on to the next deal. The only difference now is the camera is running.”

The key to the show’s appeal, he adds, is the unvarnished view it provides of life in the real estate world. “We don’t hold anything back,” he says. “We show what it takes to be successful in this business”—namely market expertise, speed, and an aggressive approach to deal-making.

But viewers also see Davis bantering (and sometimes bickering) with his staff, “drinking beer, and driving without a seatbelt,” he laughs. The tone, overall, is closer to “Home Improvement,” the 1980s Tim Allen sitcom, than to a typical real estate show.

“It’s a hybrid,” says Michael Morrison, senior producer at A&E. “People are intrigued by the personalities at Trademark, and Richard is the pied piper of those personalities. Each week the house being renovated serves as the catalyst that creates the comedy and drama among the principal characters. It’s an entertainment show with lifestyle takeaway value as opposed to a how-to lifestyle show. It’s new and different.”

Davis, who owns the copyright to the show, wrote the treatment for the show’s pilot and came up with $85,000 of his own money to film it. “I was cocky enough to think I was going to get this on TV,” he says. “I knew I had something no one else had.”

He showed the pilot to three different national channels, had offers from two of them, and ultimately went with A&E because he could retain creative control.

Davis says his local business remains pretty much what it was before the advent of the show. “I didn’t do this to make my phones ring. We’ve got all the business we can handle,” he says.

More intriguing, he says, are the 60,000-plus e-mail messages he has received since the show went on the air from people interested in how he does business. “Five years from now, you’re going to see Trademark Properties all over the country,” Davis predicts.

But reaching that goal won’t mean the end of “Flip This House,” he says. For Davis and other camera-loving practitioners, the fun of television is just too good to give up.

All eyes on you

We all want to be Oprah, a television “natural” with charisma to spare. Is it possible to learn the techniques of television’s leading lady?

Sallie L. Gaines, senior vice president of Hill & Knowlton in Chicago, has coached numerous executives on what it takes to succeed on television. Her verdict: “Yes. Some people are naturally better speakers or carry themselves better than others. But much of what you need to know to deliver your message effectively can be taught.”

Whether you’re starring in a reality TV show, taping an ad, being interviewed by a reporter, or just speaking in a public forum, follow these tips from Gaines:

1) Never wing it.
Before you go on, sit down and create a list of the two or three major points you want to make and anecdotes from your experiences to back them up.

2) Listen to yourself.
“Most people don’t really have voice problems. They have delivery problems,” Gaines says. “One of the most common is overusing words such as like and basically or just um. Get a tape recorder and practice beforehand.”

3) Dress for success.
“No striped shirts, no goofy ties. If you’re a woman, don’t wear dangly earrings. Get rid of anything that will cause people to focus on what you look like rather than what you’re saying. And comb your hair!”

4) Eliminate the shine.
“If you have a bald spot or a receding hairline, powder is a very good thing. Any man who goes on TV without powdering his forehead is just foolish,” Gaines says. “As for women, if there was ever a day to wear eye makeup, this is it. And, ladies, don’t forget your lipstick!”

Advertising basics

An effective TV commercial lets your personality shine through, says Greg Herder, CEO of Hobbs/Herder Advertising in Newport Beach, Calif. “Some of the best ads tell a little story or offer a slice-of-life look at a salesperson. By the end of the commercial, viewers feel that they know and like you.”

Don’t expect TV to substitute for your print advertising. “TV is a great amplifier of other media,” says Herder. “By itself, it’s not that effective at generating business. But when you combine it with things like direct mail, billboards, and print ads, it can make a big difference. It brands you.”

Buying television time is most economical in cities where there’s a large population in a fairly contained geographic area, says Herder. The reason: Cable companies tend to break large markets down into smaller areas for advertising purposes, which lowers the cost of buying an ad.

“Very often you can do a cable ad or show for a very small geographic area, say 20,000 to 25,000 homes,” he says.

In rural areas, however, the reverse is often true. In Wyoming, for example, it’s not possible to buy time in just one or two cities. “You can’t just buy 10,000 homes in Casper,” says Herder. “You have to buy the whole state, even if you don’t want to reach—or pay for—the whole state.”

Under the right circumstances, cable is often surprisingly affordable. “Most people, if they’re going to do a cable campaign for a small geographic area, can probably buy a package of 30 to 40 commercials for about $1,000 a month,” Herder says.

Robert Sharoff is an architectural writer for The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Magazine. With photographer William Zbaren, he has produced books highlighting the architecture of Detroit and St. Louis. He is a former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.

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