Like bread crumbs in an urban forest, the telltale open house flags have been planted along a tantalizing route in Brentwood, leading from Mandeville Canyon to a little street called Kimberly Lane. At the end of the trail is not grandmother's cottage, however. It is a driveway. A very long driveway, where a black Ferrari is parked, not quite perfectly. This slightly intimidating vehicle belongs to Michael Eisenberg, an irrepressible real estate agent who has parked his car askew in order to keep the electronic gate from closing. He is selling this house for a couple who bought it, changed their minds, never moved in and put it back on the market. They are not speculators. "Internet software," says Eisenberg, as though that is all the explanation that is necessary.
The driveway leads to an ultra-refurbished 1950s ranch house of about 5,500 square feet, with a two-story living room, four bedrooms including a master suite, maid's quarters, limestone floors and a pool with a rock waterfall and slide. The property is semi-secluded (the house next door, on a higher elevation, looms a bit over the driveway). This is, says Eisenberg, "a good house on a great piece of property." And, for $5.9 million or so, it could be yours. So come on in and take a look.
"They do open houses in other parts, but it's a California phenomenon, basically," says real estate agent Joan McGoohan. "It's almost a religion with us."
This secular form of worship takes place every Sunday in neighborhoods all over real-estate crazy Los Angeles, even at the very highest reaches. There was a time, not so long ago, when the $5-million open house was just about unheard of. Anything in that range was only going to be shown by appointment. But as real estate prices have skyrocketed, open houses in the $5-million-and-up category are becoming increasingly common, especially in a market as hot as this. As of last week, Multiple Listing Service showed 119 homes in Los Angeles County priced at $5 million and above. Of those 119 properties, most will be available to see by appointment only, but half a dozen or so are likely to throw their doors open, inviting the public in to inspect their layouts, closet spaces and amenities.
There is no question that open houses sell homes. McGoohan mentions a new home on Alma Real in Pacific Palisades that recently sold for $13.2 million to a businessman who wandered in one Sunday and decided to make an offer, even though he hadn't intended to buy in that range.
Though the entertainment business is a fact of life in L.A., big celebrities rarely allow open houses. But plenty of working show-biz people do. Real estate agent Shel Kirshner recently held an open house in Pacific Palisades at the $5.9-million home of music producer Jerry Goldstein, whose gold records for "The Best of War and More" (War is famous for "Cisco Kid" and "Low Rider") and the 1965 hit "Hang on Sloopy" were displayed. The recent rains had put a dent in the number of showings for the home, says Kirshner, who felt the open house would make up for that. About 50 people came through the first day. "Maybe one or two of those are potential buyers," he says.
Looky-loos will always mingle with serious buyers, and in an era as casual as this, no one can reliably tell the difference. Some agents will take special precautions in these expensive homes, such as asking people to don hospital booties to keep floors pristine. Some will post assistants at the front door or follow visitors around to make sure they don't help themselves to a trinket such as the little Persian rug that someone once stole from the powder room of a Beverly Hills home McGoohan had listed.
Eisenberg doesn't ask people to sign in — "You think people are gonna give me their real name and number, so I have to call a fake number and go through that?" But most agents do. Longtime Westside agent James Respondek usually stands at the door, introducing himself to people coming through.
"I have them tell me their name, and then I put it in the book," he says. "A lot of people would scribble a fake name, and if they are going to lie, I want them to lie to me and I will write their lie down. At least they have to verbalize it. A lot of times, they will be with friends or family and they won't lie in front of them."
'Buyers are liars'
Yet even at this level, the reasons for an open house are the same as those for a $400,000 tract home in Torrance: It makes home shopping easy for people who are busy during the week, it generates potential business for an agent, and it creates a sense of excitement about a property. And an open house may lead to an unexpected sale, because, as Eisenberg puts it, "buyers are liars."
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."
Buyers at every level can be picky, but at this level picky can reach new heights. One week later, Gremi Joffe walks into Kerbox's open house on Alma Real in the Palisades. This house is spectacular, and, says Kerbox, it is the only house currently on the market in this neighborhood. Yet, standing on the sidewalk outside, Joffe points to the slightly weathered wood that encloses the deck above the double garage. It is faded compared with the bright, new-looking shingles on the rest of the house. "That looks cheap," says Joffe. "It screams renovation. And why no pool?"
Where the 'wow' is
If you plot it on a map, most of L.A. County's high-end real estate, with the exception of Malibu and enclaves like San Marino, is scattered within a six-carat stone's throw of Sunset Boulevard. About eight miles east of Mandeville Canyon, in the hills above the Sunset Strip, is a neighborhood known as "the bird streets." Winding, climbing roads with the names Nightingale, Flicker and Swallow are home to a concentrated number of Hollywood celebrities — Jennifer Aniston, Keanu Reeves, Tobey Maguire, Debra Messing, Leonardo DiCaprio, Frankie Muniz, Courtney Cox and David Arquette.
Curiously, for a neighborhood that appeals to actors, the houses are very close to the street. They are not particularly huge. But they are very, very expensive. Hermann says that on a cost per square foot basis, they are the most expensive homes in the city. "For renovated property," he says, "it's close to $1,500 per square foot." (According to recent home sales information compiled by DataQuick Information Systems, per-square-foot averages were $350 in Woodland Hills, $531 in Palos Verdes, $726 in Brentwood and $487 in the 91105 Pasadena ZIP Code.) What distinguishes homes on the bird streets are their vertiginous views, many spanning the Los Angeles basin from downtown to Malibu. "You can look over your grassy yard and your pool and see from downtown to the ocean," says Hermann, who specializes in remodeling and selling homes in this area. "There are maybe 200 homes here and maybe 25 are owned by well-known celebrities," he adds. "Yeah, it's speculator heaven."
On this day, Hermann has thrown open to the public a house that he has remodeled and is living in on Nightingale. He is asking $5.45 million, a $400,000 reduction from the original price. The home is much in keeping with Hermann's area of specialization — the single story, midcentury modern. It is sleek and spare, with high-quality finishes that include a marble wall, terrazzo floors and a fingerprint recognition system at the front gate. At the front door, visitors are asked to don hospital booties to protect the white shag carpets. The view from nearly every room is astonishing. The house is high enough that a pair of hawks seem to be circling at eye level. And then a helicopter flies by, also at eye level. "You should see this place at dusk," says Hermann's brother, Mark, who is helping with the open house. "The traffic helicopters seem like they're flying right at you. It's right out of 'Blade Runner.' "
Hermann figures he has spent about $250,000 on furnishings, and will be happy to sell them to the next owner. "I would say that 80% of the time people will buy every single thing in the house," he says. "About two years ago, I sold a house to Christina Aguilera in the Hollywood Hills off Sunset Strip. She wanted everything down to the candles."
A phrase that crops up in his promotional materials for the home is "unbelievable sex appeal." And indeed, it would seem that this house was made for the very same guy who might have bought one of those gull-wing stainless steel sports cars — "the horny bachelor who's made it" in the immortal words of John Z. DeLorean.
As if on cue near the end of that day's open house, a trio of handsome young men, perhaps in their mid-thirties, leap out of a forest green Range Rover. They are right out of "Entourage," HBO's portrait of young Hollywood. They take a spin through the house and then, as they are leaving, one turns to Hermann's brother and says, "The only thing wrong with this house? No Jacuzzi."
One week after his open house on Kimberly Lane in Brentwood, Eisenberg, who is tall, with curly dark hair and soulful eyes, is standing in jeans and a dress shirt in the parking circle of a home high above Coldwater Canyon that he describes as "the best house in L.A." It is a 7,300-square-foot Tuscan-themed villa — all burnt umber, cool stone and views. It juts out on a promontory on Kimridge Road and was built several years ago by John Levin, an emergency room physician-actor-developer whose nickname is Dr. Downslope. Built in 2000, it later sold for less than $5 million. It is on the market today for $8.2 million.
"At this price," says Eisenberg, "this property is a giveaway. It has all the bells and whistles. A long driveway. A guest house. Incredible panoramic views from every room. An incredible floating pool that overlooks the city. A party deck with a 40-foot-long bar, miniature golf, an outdoor fireplace, big-screen TVs." (And a red-draped home theater that looks a bit too much like a bordello. "He took it a little too far with the red," Eisenberg freely admits.)
This house has not been staged. In fact, it's obvious that a single man lives here — his closet is full, the "hers" side of the master suite, complete with its own walk-in closet and bathroom, is stark and empty, and there are photos of a beautiful little blond girl throughout. A massive Indian motorcycle, chrome gleaming, is parked in the living room for show.
Today, Eisenberg has left the Ferrari at home and brought his black Range Rover. He also has a Hummer H2, and drives whichever of his cars he thinks will have the appropriate impact on buyers and sellers. Spending time with him is a tutorial in the anthropology of high-end real estate practice. "People who have succeeded," he says, "want to be around people who have success. I have a fleet based on my clientele. It's an unfortunate statement, but a car is more important than what you wear. I have sold $5-million houses in shorts."
Eisenberg possesses a quality that is probably part of the DNA of all top-selling Los Angeles real estate agents: He is voluble without being gossipy. He doesn't want to reveal much about the owner of this house — except to say the man is a Florida-based developer who bought the home a couple of years ago after growing tired of staying at the Hotel Bel-Air. The man's project in Los Angeles is finished, but he'd like to keep a pied-à-terre here so he's looking for something a little smaller — maybe 3,000 square feet on one level, rather than 7,300 square feet in two stories.
In consideration of the owner, Eisenberg has not advertised the open house, but has planted a few discreet flags and made some appointments with interested parties during the open house.
"That's how I am convincing my high-dollar sellers to have an open house, otherwise what am I going to do to get people here who can't come during the week? To make the kind of money you need to buy a house like this, you have to spend most of your time working, right?"