Top real-estate brokers in some of the nation's softest markets have a message for homeowners who truly want to sell their properties this fall: Sweeten the pot. Pay higher commissions. Pay bonuses to the agents who bring ready and willing buyers to the table. Help them win $50,000 cash prizes and free weekends in Bermuda.

Here's what is happening:

On suburban Long Island, where home-sale volume and price declines have been steep for two years, Century 21 agent Joe McQuillen asks -- and routinely gets -- minimum 8 percent to 10 percent commissions from his home sellers. Those extra-big fees "are the key to my entire business," he said. They're why he's sold 40 houses since January and racked up more than $200,000 in commissions during each of the last two years.

In the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, increasing numbers of houses on the local multiple-listing services carry $1,000 to $1,500 bonuses or other incentives. Ray Chappell, the regional five-state head of Prudential Preferred Properties, said he wouldn't be surprised if 10 percent to 15 percent of all his firm's sales in the coming soft-market months involve some form of extra financial incentive to selling agents. An aggressive agent with a competing firm, Mount Vernon Realty Inc., offers a free long weekend in Bermuda to agents who produce buyers for any of her houses.

In economically hard-hit Connecticut, the state's largest firm, the William Raveis Co., hasn't announced it publicly yet, but it is gearing up to shift its standard commission from 6 percent to 7 percent. The 1,500-agent firm also has inaugurated an incentive program in which sellers agree to provide a bonus of $10,000, payable in cash at closing. The bonus money is then put into a $100,000 pool created from 10 such house sales. The 10 selling agents and 10 listing agents who sold the houses then have their names entered into a drawing. The listing agent whose name is drawn from the hat gets $50,000 in cash. The selling agent whose name is drawn also gets $50,000.

The 1-in-10 chance to win $50,000 in cash, said chief executive William Raveis, has agents inside and outside his firm "incredibly motivated and excited" about selling houses carrying the bonus.

McQuillen, one of Century 21's highest-selling agents nationally, said fatter commissions -- plus realistic pricing -- are "the only way for serious sellers to go in soft markets."

"I'm very upfront about it {to sellers}," McQuillen said. "I tell them if you list your house with me, I'm going to sell your house. You can be certain of that if we price it right. But you've got to compensate me for the extras I do in marketing. And you've got to enable me to catch the eye of other agents."

What catches their eye in the glutted, soft suburban New York market these days, he said, is a larger-than-average number on the multiple-listing service in the "selling broker's commission" box.

"When {an agent} knows that he or she is going to make 4 {percent} or 5 percent by selling one of my houses versus 3 percent selling somebody else's, guess where that agent brings the traffic. You've got to remember that agents work on commissions, not salary, and a bigger commission puts more bread on the table."

Every Friday morning, just before the weekend selling days, McQuillen delivers fliers on his latest listings to 30 or 40 competing agents, mainly from other firms in the area. The fliers prominently mention the unusual commission split. "I don't see them as my adversaries, I see them as my partners in future sales," he said.

Raveis argues that in the emerging real estate markets nationwide, "unorthodox marketing methods are going to have to replace traditional methods or we simply go out of business." Asking sellers to cough up an extra $10,000 in cash at closing or to go along with a standard 7 percent commission certainly sounds unorthodox. How's it going over?

With no public announcements or publicity on the $10,000-bonus option, Raveis said 100 homeowners have signed on its first 14 days.

"Sellers are drooling to be part of it," he said. "They are truly motivated to sell, and with a $300,000 average home price {in the southern Connecticut bedroom suburbs of New York}, they say, 'What's $10,000 if it means I can finally sell, and sell at a reasonable price.' "

Century 21's McQuillen said soft real-estate markets "are the absolute kiss of death" for discount brokers. The name of the game now is heavy promotion -- direct mail, fliers, three-color brochures, aggressive advertising -- all of which costs extra money. With little or no money for such promotion, discount brokers can't compete.

"Sure you can list with somebody at 3 {percent} or 5 percent instead of me at 8 {percent} or 9 percent," McQuillen said, "but 3 {percent} or 5 percent of nothing -- no sale -- is still nothing."