How do you make an open house stand out? Sometimes agents go to extremes, but the glitz doesn't always help.

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By Dan Rafter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 8, 2008

David Mayhood isn't a fan of holding raffles, hiring chamber musicians or giving away flat-screen TVs at the open houses that his condominium marketing and sales firm holds.

But cozy private dinners for six? Demonstrations of high-end kitchen appliances? Pricey wines provided by a local business? These are the extra touches that Mayhood, president of the Mayhood Co. in McLean, has been using to add dash to the open houses he has arranged for Turnberry Tower, a luxury high-rise condo development targeted to open a year from now in Rosslyn.

Units range from about $800,000 to more than $4 million. Potential buyers, then, are looking for more than the traditional open house with a plate of chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen.

"We want our private dinner parties to create a sense of the lifestyle at Turnberry Tower," Mayhood said. "We want our guests to get a sense of what it will be like to live in Turnberry."

Perhaps a few years ago, during the height of the residential real estate boom, Mayhood would have held a by-the-numbers open house for Turnberry, with sales managers explaining the project's features to potential buyers.

Today, though, Mayhood is among a growing number of real estate professionals across the country who are holding what are known as extreme open houses to entice potential buyers through the doors. These open houses up the ante, turning what is normally a quick peek through a home on a Sunday afternoon into an event. The events are gaining in popularity even though many agents still say that few sales are actually made at open houses.

Agents holding extreme open houses may hire professional musicians to play as guests tour the property. They may pay to have skilled chefs create gourmet meals to show off a remodeled kitchen. Other agents have held wine tastings and, if the home happens to have a sprawling backyard, an extravagant barbecue.

Proponents of such events say they differ from the giveaways that other open houses have often offered. Instead of giving away a free plasma TV as an incentive for buying, these open houses are designed to bring people in the doors for events that feel more like parties than sales pitches. Agents who hold these events say they work best for higher-end properties, homes that have some unique characteristics -- remarkable yards or extremely high-end appliances -- that agents can focus on.

House hunters looking for such lavish treatment in the Washington region may be disappointed, though. Extreme open houses are still rarities here, Mayhood's dinner parties notwithstanding.

Local agents say the reason is simple: The buyers here aren't looking for glitz, even if they're at the high end of the market. They're more interested in finding a house that is a fair value in a good location and is the right fit for their lifestyles.

"We see a lot of those more unique open houses in New York," said Jane Fairweather, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda. "The New York clientele, though, is so much different than ours. You have more high-end rollers there. It's a more international market. Our international market tends toward government or quasi-government industries. New York has more of an extravagant party lifestyle. While D.C. is a very sophisticated town, it is also a very conservative one. Glitzy things don't go over well here."

An extreme open house works only if the event manages to showcase what is special about a home, said Margaret Rome, owner of TREC, a real estate firm in Baltimore.

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