How to Market a Unique Home
The very qualities that make a property peculiar can become its strongest selling point. Real estate practitioners share lessons they’ve learned from their most unusual listings.
December 1, 2004
Call them unique, quirky, or just plain weird. Some listings are truly one-of-a-kind. The building is shaped like a giant boot. Or it’s painted like an American flag. Or it’s underground in a Cold War-era missile silo. The floor plan is eccentric, the location is out of the way, or the architecture resembles an alien space ship. How do you market a house that doesn’t even look like a house?
Extremely unusual properties pose unique challenges for real estate practitioners:
- Conventional marketing strategies like newspaper ads and open houses don’t always reach the select buyers who may live in other states or even other countries.
- When you do find a prospect, problems with financing can quash the deal. Lenders require a clear sense of the property’s resale value before they can offer a loan.
- To determine the value, appraisers look for comparable sales. A house that has no equivalent is quickly pegged as risky.
All too often, marketing a unique home is a trial-and-error process. Many sellers report having to reduce their initial asking prices and having to alter original advertising strategies. Without the guidance of a licensed real estate practitioner, the property can languish on the market for years. On the other hand, a shrewd—and perhaps unconventional—approach can turn eccentricities into assets. Here, real estate pros share important lessons they’ve learned from their unconventional listings.
Create a Stir
An outrageous color scheme posed a dilemma for Bonnie Bevans, a sales associate with William Raveis Real Estate in Kent, Conn. Her listing, a century-old wood frame house, would have been traditional if the owner had not painted red, white, and blue stripes across the façade. The flag theme continued inside with striped floors and a star-spangled kitchen.
Known in the community as the Flag House, the property was startlingly patriotic. But wouldn’t it sell faster if it were painted white? Bevans used the question as a way to stage a creative publicity event. She invited townspeople to vote on whether to keep the stars and stripes. As the ballot circulated at local shops, the Flag House became a hot topic. Bevans fueled the excitement by attiring herself in flag motifs.
“I even went to Wal-Mart and got red, white, and blue fringe for my jeans,” Bevans says. Because the event was quirky and amusing, major newspapers like the Hartford Courant and the Chicago Tribune picked up the story.
The home’s highly visible location made it especially appealing to prospective buyers who wanted to open a furniture store. However, they weren’t swayed by the fanfare over the flag. Instead, they opted to have the house repainted.
Still, Bevans says she isn’t sorry she created a stir. “The amount of press the Flag House received was a blessing!” Bevans is now using similar marketing techniques—dressing in Victorian garb and hosting fried-chicken picnics—in the village of Roxbury, Conn., to draw attention to her listings there, which include an 1830s farmhouse and antique tobacco-processing barn.
Check the Zoning
Let’s face it. Most people don’t want to actually live in a house that looks like a theme park ride. Some places are so quirky that they are better suited for shops and restaurants than private homes.
Take the Haines Shoe House in Hellam, Pa., for instance. Built by a shoe magnate in 1948, the structure is shaped like an enormous high-topped boot. When the owners decided to sell, their listing agency, Realty Select, notified the media. Local news stories led to international coverage, including mention in a Japanese magazine. A prospective buyer in England considered using the Shoe House for a part-time residence. But the winning offer came from a Pennsylvania restaurant owner who wanted to open an ice cream parlor.
“The shoe shape was an attraction,” says the buyer’s representative, Jody Newcomer, who is a brokerage adviser at Rock Commercial Real Estate, LLC, in York, Pa.
Even when an unusual house is saddled with restrictive zoning regulations, it can have potential for commercial use—especially if it’s located in a business district. For example, the sale of the Flag House in Connecticut hinged on the buyers’ ability to install a parking lot. Their practitioner, Christopher Garrity, a partner at Bain Real Estate in Sharon, Conn., worked with the local zoning board to obtain the zoning variance they required.
Let the Cameras Roll
You don’t always need costumes and gimmicks to move your listing into the spotlight. Sometimes the property is unusual enough to attract media attention on its own. Eye-popping originality led to top-notch publicity for Ron Stanchfield, GRI, CRS, of Counselor Realty in Wayzata, Minn. Ron and his wife Diana, who also is a real estate practitioner, are selling their domed home near Lake Minnetonka. With massive concrete walls and an innovative geodesic roof, the building is an oddity in an area where homeowners tend to favor conventional Colonials. Even after radical price reductions, buyers shied away. “People drive by and think it’s too extreme,” Stanchfield says.
How could the Stanchfields convince prospective buyers to look inside? The answer came when their listing was selected for a segment on the HGTV show, Extreme Homes of the Frozen North. For the Stanchfields, the program was like an electronic open house, letting viewers see the awe-inspiring domed ceilings and sun-drenched rooms.
Any form of television promotion, from HGTV to a local network, can generate excitement. You can find out how to submit your listing to be featured on one of numerous shows that air on HGTV (“Designed to Sell,” “Landscapers’ Challenge,” “Homes Across America,” to name a few) by going to the Be on HGTV page of the HGTV Web site.
Stanchfield cautions, however, that TV fame does not guarantee a speedy sale for extremely unusual properties. His home is still on the market. “We may have to wait longer for the right person to come,” Stanchfield says.
Find Your Niche
Finding the right buyer often means tapping into a highly specialized market. Michael Wenzl, broker associate at Jones-Healy, REALTORS®, in Pueblo, Colo., discovered the value of niche marketing when he co-listed a remarkable, 5,863-square-foot home constructed of eight interconnected domes. Set on 40 acres, the structure suggests white igloos clustered on the scenic bluff.
Fascinated, Wenzl began to study up on dome construction. “My horizon broadened,” Wenzl says. As he surfed the Web, he discovered entire communities of people who are passionate about dome construction. Through message boards and e-mail discussion groups, he connected with dome enthusiasts across the country.
Within weeks of posting photos of his listing, Wenzl was exchanging e-mails with three interested buyers. “The Internet has definitely been the most successful strategy,” he says.
Use the Web
Like most practitioners, Wenzl posted his listing on real estate Web sites. He also hired a media company to create a compelling virtual tour with music and creative camera work. However, Wenzl found Web promotion especially helpful when he targeted special interest Web sites such as the Monolithic Dome Institute.
Finding niche markets on the Web is as easy as typing keywords into a search engine like Google. Here’s a sampling of some more Web sites for people who are passionate about nontraditional architecture:
- Natural Spaces Domes
- Earth House
- Doo Wop Preservation League (Wacky buildings from the 1950s and ’60s)
- LiveModern (Modernist homes)
- 20th Century Castles (Missile bases)
Become a Specialist
What kind of person would want to live underground? Ed Peden and his wife Dianna do. In 1994, the couple bought an 18,000-square-foot subterranean military complex near Topeka, Kan. “They make fascinating homes,” Peden says.
The Pedens’ passion for Cold War-era military facilities led not only to an original new home, but also to a new career. They now own 20th Century Castles, a research and consulting firm that specializes in these structures. Working with real estate professionals, they track down owners, investigate the environmental safety of properties, and facilitate transactions that often reach across state and even national boundaries.
Specialization has allowed the Pedens to zero in on the needs and interests of a small and very select group of buyers. “We’ve closed 31 sales,” Peden says.
To eBay or Not to eBay?
Another missile silo home, this one nestled in New York’s Adirondack State Park, hit the headlines when the owners put it up for auction on the popular eBay Web site. The innovative, cylinder-shaped “Silo Home” was featured on national and international television shows, including “The Today Show,” “20/20,” and HGTV’s “Extreme Homes.” The eBay auction inspired three bids, with the winner offering a whopping $2.1 million.
However, frenzied bidding in an eBay auction doesn’t necessarily translate into a firm sale. Without a firm contract or reliable follow-through, deals often fizzle. This was the case with the Silo Home. Curiosity-seekers flocked to eBay and to the owner’s own Web site, Silohome.com, but the winning bidder backed out. The property is now listed with Kathleen Chace, an associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens in Manhattan.
Chace is now following up on the owner’s eBay leads and drawing upon her own networking skills. “We can use computers and the Internet, but in the long run, we need face-to-face interaction,” Chace says. For Chace, the most important step in selling any property is to take advantage of multiple listing systems and to reach out to other real estate practitioners. “You never know who will have an interested client,” Chace says.
Explain Your Price
There’s a catch-22 to marketing a unique property. Because it’s unique, it’s difficult to appraise. And because it’s difficult to appraise, traditional lenders shy away.
“Underwriters don’t like the word ‘unique,’” says Dan Hanratty, a certified general appraiser at Shamrock Appraisal Services in Beulah, Colo. Traditional homes can be appraised by looking at comparable sales in the area over the past six months or so. But when a property is very unusual, appraisers may need to go back three years, and even then they may not find an equivalent.
Hanratty knew he faced a challenge when he was asked to appraise Michael Wenzl’s multi-domed listing. “There were six domes coming off from the main dome,” Hanratty says. “This was probably the most unique situation I’ve ever dealt with.”
The addendum became the meat of Hanratty’s report. “Every adjustment I made, I explained as thoroughly as I could,” he says. His appraisal of Wenzl’s property contained 30 pages of specifics, including construction costs, land values, and information about dome construction.
Hanratty’s detailed appraisal gives Wenzl the ammunition he needs to negotiate with prospective buyers and, if necessary, to help them locate lenders who will be receptive to his extraordinary listing.
How to Appraise a Unique Home
The appraisal on any one-of-a-kind property needs to be especially precise and detailed. If you have a unique listing on your hands, you can provide detailed information for your appraiser to get the appraisal that you want. Hanratty provides the following suggestions to help your appraisal go smoothly:
- Calculate construction costs: How much would it cost to build the house today?
- Determine the land value: What is the price of building lots in the region?
- Find the three most comparable sales, even if they appear radically different from your one-of-a-kind property. How much are homes on similar lots selling for?
- Adjust your price.
- Explain your appraisal by citing precise and provable reasons. Avoid vague observations such as “wonderful view.”
- Never mislead; stay with quantifiable facts.
Turn Differences Into Assets
A property that’s truly unique is worth more than dollars and cents. Even the most detailed appraisal can’t fully express the value prospective buyers place on qualities like originality and creativity.
“Every house has its own special features,” says Bonnie Bevans, who listed the Flag House in Kent, Conn. The bottom line? Capitalize on the things that make the property especially unusual. “Once you find those special features, they will help sell the house,” Bevans says.
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