Rayni and Branden Williams spent months lining up a director, cast and crew for their “lifestyle film.”
The plot line: A husband takes off for a business trip in his Corvette, leaving his wife to invite friends to hang out in their wine room, gym, massage space, movie theater and infinity-edge pool overlooking the city.
But the actors are only a supporting cast to the real star — the $33-million house at 9133 Oriole Way, a modernist mansion with 12,530 square feet of sun-drenched living space nestled in the hills near neighbors such as Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio.
And the Williamses are not movie producers; they’re real estate agents. They spent more than $40,000 on the production, just one example of the outlandish lengths today’s high-end agents are willing to go to in pursuit of that big commission. For the Oriole house, the Williamses’ cut could exceed $1 million.
“Regular marketing doesn’t work anymore. We’re appealing to a more sophisticated and savvy group of buyers,” Rayni Williams said. “We’re taking it to a whole other level.”
For some agents, that includes aerial home viewings via helicopter, elaborate parties with elite guest lists and hors d’oeuvres whipped up on demand by award-winning chefs.
The high competition among agents reflects the rapid and global rise of extreme wealth. The number of billionaires worldwide is at a record high: 1,826 total, with 290 newcomers, according to Forbes’ annual list. Many are foreign; more of them than ever before are under age 40.
They’re increasingly likely to buy a property based solely on what they see online, especially if they’re from outside the U.S. So upscale homes are often advertised via glossy websites stocked with detailed floor plans, Hollywood-caliber videos and aerial photos taken by drones.
At the Brentwood branch of Sotheby’s International Realty, potential buyers can visit luxury Southern California properties without leaving the agent’s office, using headsets to view tours crafted with 3-D virtual reality technology. Users can linger in certain rooms and look around as though they’re there in person, said Matthew Hood, a Sotheby’s agent.
“The whole experience is only going to improve. It’s good right now, but it’s heading toward great,” he said.
Four decades ago, when Joyce Rey started out in real estate selling homes for the likes of Sonny and Cher, the most luxurious mansions in town would go for less than a million dollars. High-end home advertising involved a two-line notice, sans photo, in the classifieds section. Documents were hand-delivered by real estate agents who usually worked alone.
Rey now has five assistants. She and Stacy Gottula, her partner at Coldwell Banker Previews International, Estates Division, regularly deal with billionaires. Together, impeccably coiffed and fashionably dressed, they represent the most expensive home listing in the nation — the opulent, 25-acre, $195-million Palazzo di Amore in Beverly Hills.
The estate — with its dozen bedrooms, 23 bathrooms, 27-car garage, vineyard, screening room, bowling alley and ocean views — is separated from the rest of the city by a quarter-mile of tree-lined driveway, seemingly transplanted from some magical corner of Provence. The palatial interior, aglow under glittering crystal chandeliers, is festooned with grand tapestries and gilded artwork.
Marketing such a property — where the 13,500 bottles of fine wine kept on site are considered a minor selling point — requires tact, creativity and no small amount of capital, experts said.
Some agents will call in helicopters if a client wants a panoramic view. Others advise sellers to stock houses with expensive furniture, silverware and art specifically selected to lure buyers. Thousands of dollars go into intricate property renderings.
“We have to be one step ahead of the marketplace,” Gottula said. “That’s what our clients come to us for.”
Top real estate agents move in a tiny community, and image, reputation and connections are everything.
Branden Williams, a former actor, almost exclusively wears designer suits: Prada, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent. He and Rayni own “a really nice estate” in a Beverly Hills neighborhood known as Trousdale Estates, which has been home to Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Jennifer Aniston.
“It helps to have people know that we live in the area we sell in,” Rayni said.
Their familiarity with extreme wealth soothes buyers, agents said. But it also allows them to screen out unwanted interest.
Rey and Gottula were given the Palazzo listing because of their previous track record, and because they had worked with its owner, real estate mogul Jeff Greene, on leasing the property to business people and prominent international families. Now, the partners open the house only to those with a private invitation or who have undergone a financial vetting process.
“You get a lot of lookie-loos,” Gottula said. “A lot of these clients are very high profile and confidential.”
Their fellow agents also use Google and contacts at banks to research potential clients and filter out all but the most moneyed prospects. Rayni Williams’ rule of thumb: “If you can’t buy it in cash, you can’t buy it.”
Qualified buyers will often mortgage their properties, although they don’t need to, to take advantage of low interest rates and keep their cash liquid, she said.
“To them, it’s like borrowing free money,” she said. “Just like realtors, these banks will jump for you all day long.”
Many clients also try to haggle.
“Most super-wealthy people are frugal and want to figure out the best way to get the best price on the property,” Branden Williams said. “They’ll write letters, want to talk to sellers, want to get everyone and their mothers involved.”
Including their lawyers.
David Kramer of Hilton & Hyland, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, said he encountered distinctive hurdles when selling Aaron Spelling’s 4.7-acre, $150-million Candyland property to British socialite Petra Ecclestone Stunt in 2011.
Partly to avoid future legal squabbles, Kramer said he decided to test for mold within the 56,500-square-foot main house. He hired microbiologists to set up a forensic lab on the property, and they used 99 samples to trace mold to a single laundry basket.
Kramer also researched specialists who could deal with the mansion’s unique roof, generator network and commercial-grade electrical system.
Ultimately, though, the decision to buy a multimillion-dollar house is usually an emotional one, he said.
Kramer said he cinches deals by essentially letting homes speak for themselves. He’s thrown poolside picnics for potential clients and their families and showcased ocean views by inviting clients over for champagne at sunset.
“When you’re selling a house like this, what they’re looking for is lifestyle, not specifics,” Kramer said. “We’re in the want business, not the need business.”
Rayni and Branden Williams do whatever they can to make their properties as desirable as possible, including spending about $300,000 as the listing agents for a glossy eight-bedroom, 15-bath estate on Beverly Hill’s posh Hillcrest Drive. The home — which looks like a good place for Tony Stark to house his Iron Man lab — includes a candy room, Roberto Cavalli place settings and multiple $5,600 toilets.
The Williamses advertised in luxury publications such as Yacht Magazine. Each month, $50,000 went toward billboards on Sunset Boulevard with the slogan “Dream Big, Live Bigger.” Interested and qualified buyers received leather satchels that doubled as airplane carry-ons, which were stuffed with crocodile-bound books describing the house as well as boxes of fine Beverly Hills chocolates and bottles of Cristal.
One night, a potential client flew into Los Angeles for a few hours to see the Hillcrest house. The Williamses spent $5,000 to hire a private chef to prepare lamb chops. But when the client arrived, he said he felt like eating sushi.
The couple scrambled and soon presented platters of fresh sushi prepared by acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa — and served by models.
The client, 36-year-old Swedish video game programmer Markus Persson, paid $70 million in cash for the property in December.
“The moral of the story is: Money is not an object when we market these homes,” Rayni said. “It’s a gamble — you stand to make a million-dollar commission, but there’s always the possibility that you don’t sell the property and end up hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.”