From Oscars Tickets to Harry Potter-Themed Videos, Homebuyers Are Spicing Up Their Offers

January 25, 2021

After a year of searching for a home in Oakland, Calif., for their growing family, technology executive Jack Hirsch and his wife Kie Hirsch found the perfect place in November — a charming 1930s Spanish Colonial Revival-style three-bedroom in a family-friendly neighborhood in the city’s foothills. But there was one problem: Like many U.S. home buyers in 2020, they had a lot of competition.

In a bid to make their offer stand out in the midst of a three-way bidding war, Ms. Hirsch leveraged her extensive knowledge of rock music.

Ms. Hirsch was convinced that the sellers were rock music fans, too. During tours of the property, she saw vinyl records by the B-52s, Neil Young and U2, a set of bongo drums, a guitar and a keyboard. They displayed a shadow box filled with old concert tickets. She saw an opening.

For their first offer, the Hirsches submitted a bid of $1,450,138 exactly. While it seemed, especially to their mortgage broker, like an oddly specific number, the 138 at the end was a reference to the 1978 song “We Are 138″ by the punk rock band Misfits, Ms. Hirsch said. For their second offer, they bid $1,471,979, a reference to the song 1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins. Their final offer of $1,486,753.09, a nod to the 1981 song “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone, was accepted. The deal has since closed successfully.

“I thought it was a long shot but maybe, just maybe, they would get it,” said Ms. Hirsch, 33. She and her husband, 37, were upset they were outbid on a home previously and almost gave up their search. “We were trying to speak to them through the numbers.”

The Hirsches, like many American home buyers, felt that they had to get creative to grab sellers’ attention. They are not alone. Gone are the days of simply writing a heartfelt letter about how much you love a house, said the Hirsches’ agent, Kate Norton of Redfin. Faced with one of the hottest U.S. housing markets in years, buyers today are thinking way outside the box for clever ways to make their offers more appealing, she said.

“The price is obviously the most important thing. But if things are close, it can just tip the scales,” Ms. Norton said.

The market has rarely been more challenging for buyers. In October, strong demand pushed home sales to a 14-year high. The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index, which tracks average home prices in major metropolitan areas across the country, rose 8.4% in the year that ended in October, up from a 7% annual rate the prior month. In markets nationwide, properties are getting numerous offers and selling at way above asking price.

“It’s an exhausting and sometimes heartbreaking process,” said L.A. marketing executive Andrea Kissling, 40, on her family’s search for a home. “There were probably three or four houses that we really wanted and didn’t get. My husband, who is a designer, would be already mocking up the space in CAD and then we would find out we didn’t get it.”

Ms. Kissling said she and her husband, Brad Kissling, 42, were desperately looking for a bigger home with space for their two young children, son Jack and daughter Lily, and their cat Carson. They toured more than 50 Los Angeles homes. They submitted 16 offers, sometimes over asking, only to be outbid. When they finally found their dream home last summer, a $725,000 three-bedroom house with a big pool in the Northridge area, they knew they had to pull out all the stops. “We were turning up at showings and there would be a line of people who were there before us. These houses were getting 30 or 40 offers and going $100,000 over asking,” she said.

Memorabilia around the house indicated that the sellers were fans of the “Harry Potter” films, so Ms. Kissling got to work putting together a “Harry Potter”-themed video for the sellers about why they should choose their offer.

The video opened with the movie franchise’s theme music and title cards spelling out “The Kisslings.” The Kisslings then proceeded to gush over the home and showed a montage of family photos of them doing Harry Potter-type things, like visiting a Harry Potter attraction and reading Harry Potter books to their children. The company Mr. Kissling works for provided design services for the Warner Bros. London studio tour “The Making of Harry Potter,” so the couple ended the video by offering to buy the sellers VIP passes to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood if they accepted the offer. Ms. Kissling, who knows her way around an editing suite thanks to her job in marketing at real-estate firm Nourmand & Associates, said she produced the video in about an hour.

Unfortunately, the gambit didn’t work and the sellers didn’t even acknowledge the video. The sellers ultimately chose a bigger offer of $800,000. But Ms. Kissling said the family isn’t bitter. “You don’t win if you don’t play, right?” she said. “If they love it, they love it and if they hate it, they hate it.”

These tactics are definitely hit-or-miss, said real-estate agent Chris Furstenberg, also of Nourmand & Associates in Los Angeles. Mr. Furstenberg said one of his clients once made an offer that came with the promise of tickets to the Academy Awards; the client was a filmmaker and had once been nominated for a short film, he said. The seller went with another, higher, offer. Mr. Furstenberg said these ploys often only work to break a tie in a bidding war and are rarely the deciding factor for sellers.

“They had a chance to rub elbows with the famous movie stars but at the end of the day it boiled down to money,” he said.

And, sometimes, buyers go too far. Mary Lou Wertz of Maison Real Estate in Charleston, S.C., said she recently represented a couple of young New York doctors relocating to Charleston amid the pandemic. The doctors fell in love online with a $1.2 million modern four-bedroom home in the Mount Pleasant area this fall but, unfortunately for them, the sellers accepted another offer. “They were very disappointed. I’d say more than very,” Ms. Wertz said.

In a bid to secure the property for themselves, the doctors made an unusual offer: In addition to committing to pay $10,000 more than the other buyers, they offered their competitors $25,000 to walk away from the deal and even told the seller, who had recently lost his wife to cancer, that they would make a $30,000 donation to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital in New York, Ms. Wertz said. The doctors’ offer wasn’t accepted, Ms. Wertz said. The seller wanted to honor his word to the other buyers and, ultimately, the offer seemed “a little over the top,” she said.

For the Hirsches in Oakland, their funky, music-based offers couldn’t have worked better. Their agent said she suspects they got the chance to make a third offer on the property, which is unusual, because the sellers enjoyed their ingenuity. While they closed for exactly $1,486,753, the 9 cents was sadly automatically dropped by the online filing system.

When Mr. Hirsch went to do a quick walk-through of the home post-sale, he said he ran into one of the sellers, who was packing up. “He said, ‘I have to ask you. The 138, was that a Misfits reference?’” Mr. Hirsch recalled. It turned out that the seller’s uncle was a onetime drummer for the band.

Then, Mr. Hirsch said, the seller rolled up his sleeve. On his arm, there was a Smashing Pumpkins tattoo.

Originally published in WSJ, Written by Katherine Clarke