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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Builder's open house draws bonanza of brokers

To Long & Foster agent Mary Blair, yesterday's brokers' open house at the Links in West Chester seemed "just like the old days."

"There was excitement about something new, a buildup to a big event - something really special," said Blair, who works out of the real estate firm's Devon office.

That was just what builder John Benson, of the Benson Cos. in Malvern, was hoping to hear.

"We have always been known as a single-family builder, and I wanted to introduce brokers and agents to the fact that we've been shifting to multifamily," said Benson, a third-generation builder.

Yet with so many existing and new homes on the market and sales of both down locally as a result of last summer's subprime crisis, Benson decided he had to do something extraordinary to get brokers - and, ultimately, buyers - talking about his townhouses.

The homes' golf-course views, fine finishes and amenities weren't going to be enough. Nor would the spectacular spread of food for which such events are known. What was needed was something the brokers would remember.

Prizes. Big ones. Just for showing up.

Blair took her chance, dropping her business card into a fishbowl perched on a knee wall near the entrance to the Brentwood, the four-story model for the 12 townhouses that comprise the Links.

In several hours, three cards would be drawn from that bowl, and the winners would share $10,000 in cash. One would get $5,000, two would get $2,500 each.

There was a lot of competition. More than 300 brokers and agents representing the region's major real estate companies (Weichert, Keller Williams, Century 21, ReMax, Prudential Fox & Roach, to name a few), as well as a few lenders, dropped their cards into the fishbowl during the five-hour open house.

The turnout was a lot larger than anyone - Benson, his sales manager Alison Richter and Janet Rubino, the Long & Foster vice president who worked with them on the event - had expected.

"We printed 500 brochures," Rubino said as she reached for another stack. "Maybe we'll have enough."

Food, they definitely ran out of, and the caterers called their office three times for more, she said.

"We never expected that we'd get so many," Benson said. "I'm encouraged because this kind of turnout is a rarity these days."

A typical brokers' open house draws 30 to 50 people, especially in Philadelphia, where things are closer together and agents can walk from event to event.

But Amy Cass of Prudential Fox & Roach's West Chester office was not at all surprised to see the crowd.

"A gourmet lunch is always a big draw," said Cass, who stopped by for a look at the townhouses, which start at $709,000.

And the prizes - if there are prizes at an open house - are "usually a couple of hundred dollars at the most," said Art Herling, Long & Foster's regional vice president.

Besides a shot at the cash, agents will receive bonuses for bringing in multiple buyers ($2,500 for the second, $5,000 for the third).

Just about every agent managed to get past the fishbowl and the kitchen, Rubino said, spending 15 minutes on average touring the townhouse before picking up a brochure on the way out.

Judith Alignon, office manager for Weichert Realtors in West Chester, accompanied her agents to the open house, but not, she said, for the prizes.

"Managers should be aware of the market inventory and trends," Alignon said. "Visiting open houses with their agents is one of the best ways to do that."

Cass said she was intrigued by the description of the townhouses and had to see them for herself.

"The layout is really cool, and the fact that they have elevators is ideal for 55-plus [buyers] without being limited to that group," she said.

"I also was pleased to see that there were garages, which is something we don't have a lot of in the borough. They were also in the rear of the houses, which means it isn't the first thing you see when you drive up."

But wasn't the prize drawing a factor in her coming?

She said it wasn't - and she didn't think she had a chance at winning: "There were a lot of cards in the bowl."

By: Al Heavens
Philadelphia Inquirer; April 23, 2008

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