Inside S.F.'s Secret Real Estate Market (San Francisco magazine)
"Do you have a trench coat?” the real estate agent asked, only half joking. The listing he was about to describe was so hush-hush that he and other agents had been required to sign nondisclosure agreements just to obtain the address. In order to get the broker’s tour of this supersecret, $16 million–ish Russian Hill home, I’d have to agree to keep quiet on the pertinent details—and maybe wear my best Deep Throat disguise.
Sound crazy? Not in housing-mad San Francisco, where mum’s the new buzzword in real estate. As many as 20 to 30 percent of agents’ high-end listings are now totally underground. That means no advertising, no listing sheets, no email blasts. In place of open houses, sales tactics for these homes include password-protected websites, phone-call-only marketing campaigns, and, as I found out, NDAs.
Alternatively called whisper, private, or pocket listings, this secretive sales method is increasingly common in the Bay Area, especially among wealthy, privacy-obsessed sellers intent on keeping their names and asset valuations away from prying eyes. Gregg Lynn, an agent with Sotheby’s International Realty, says that about half his listings these days aren’t officially on the market—and his clients’ rationales for doing it that way run the gamut. There are pre-IPO tech founders who want to keep speculation about their financial outlook to a minimum; or Sand Hill Road types trying to project an air of modesty. And then there’s that oh-so-Silicon-Valley notion that building a whisper network of potential buyers gives a home a level of intrigue, and buzz, that’s priceless. “It’s like if you’re in a wine club: Are you in the basic wine club, or do you get invited to the exclusive events?” says Rachel Swann, a Noe Valley–based agent with the Agency, a luxury real estate firm with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “People like that. Especially at the high end.” In a typical home sale, agents upload information about a property to the local Multiple Listing Service, or MLS, as soon as the house is photographed. That info—photos, specs, property history—is then distributed to dozens of websites, including Redfin, Trulia, and Zillow, where it’s publicly available. To the would-be anonymous seller, however, that’s simply too much data for the world to see. And they’re willing to trade the extra half a million the house might fetch in a heated bidding war for the peace of mind that comes with privacy.
“I try to make sure clients understand it doesn’t necessarily help them price-wise,” agent Nina Hatvany says of pocket listings. “It’s nice for other reasons. But does it get you the price? Probably not.”