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Marketing luxury homes in Tampa Bay with Jameis Winston, Ferraris and Maseratis

4Jameis Winston

Tampa Bay Times- Susan Taylor Martin

Sundays are rife with open houses, especially the kind where a Realtor plants a sign in the front yard and prays that at least a few folks walk through the door and sign the guest sheet.

Then there are open houses like the one in early May at a waterfront estate on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard.

Shortly after 11 a.m., a Ford Explorer pulled into a driveway half the length of a football field. Out stepped Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, accompanied by his girlfriend, his pet Labradoodle and his personal photographer. The entourage made its way into the pool house, where Winston grabbed a Sprite and a few canapes from a lavish buffet spread and politely chatted with clients of Coldwell Banker agent Jennifer Zales.

For potential buyers, the chance to meet a famous pro athlete was a powerful draw. For Zales, who held the open house in conjunction with the glossy magazine Haute Living, it was a great opportunity to showcase a nearly $14 million property that had been on the market for a year.

“The event was a tremendous success and generated serious leads both for the home as well as creating awareness of the ultra luxury lifestyle that we can offer in Tampa Bay,” Zales says.

Although the 2.6-acre estate still hasn’t sold, the open house was a prime example of the sometimes elaborate marketing efforts for luxury homes. Those can include opulent parties, ads in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal and professionally produced videos that use drones to provide striking aerial views.

Luxury listings are coveted by Realtors for a simple reason: As the adage goes with banks, that’s where the money is. The commission on a $300,000 house, often divided four ways among brokers and agents, might be enough to make a couple of mortgage payments. Sell a $3 million home and you could pay cash for a new Volvo.

But to land those sales, agents often dip deep into their own pockets at the outset.

Scott Miller, an agent with Premier Sotheby’s International Realty, estimates he’s spent a “healthy four-figure sum” marketing a French chateaux-style home in Lutz listed at $2.75 million.

Shortly before Christmas, Miller hosted a “champagne tour” of the 9,000-square-foot house that included a catered spread from Tampa’s Mise en Place restaurant. Knowing the power of celebrity in luring potential buyers, he invited a Tampa Bay Rays player he had worked with in the past.

“He was going to lead the guest list and we were very excited about that,” says Miller, who declined to name the player. “The only thing that could hold us back was if he got traded and, son of a gun, if that didn’t happen”

Miller also produced two videos about the home, one an aerial that showed the expansive grounds, the other that focused on the ornate, art-filed interior that includes an original Picasso sketch and a reproduction of Michelangelo’s painting of God creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

“In this particular instance, we tried to present it as something that would appeal to an art connoisseur,” Miller said. The home also was featured in Sotheby’s magazine, available only to high-end buyers at the firm’s auction houses.

Miller, who has a master’s degree in business, figures the return on his investment will be substantial when the home eventually sells. ”I can spend a four-figure sum and make a five-figure sum” he says.

Luxury homes — generally defined in the Tampa Bay area as those priced at $1 million and up — typically sit on the market far longer than more modest abodes. In Hillsborough County, for example, the median time from listing to contract for a luxury residence was 95 days in May compared to 28 days for houses under $300,000.

For high-priced homes, “you have to plan accordingly and make sure you have the budget to sustain what is needed over the long haul,” says Zales, who first listed the Bayshore Boulevard estate in May 2015.

Recently named Haute Living’s exclusive Tampa Bay real estate partner, Zales leveraged her affiliation with the magazine to arrange the open house May 1. That weekend’s events began with a Haute-hosted dinner at Bern’s Steak House that supported the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and honored Winston as the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year.

The next morning, Haute representatives set up a table outside the main entrance to the house and handed out free copies of the magazine, which has a regional edition in Miami. Also hoping to benefit from Winston’s star presence were local car dealerships, which provided new Ferraris and Maseratis for guests to drive, and the watch maker Hublot, which displayed timepieces costing up to $350,000 as a massive bodyguard stood by.

The majority of guests were Zale’s high-end clients. They dutifully toured the century-old home but appeared equally interested in meeting Winston and getting behind the wheel of a $250,000 car. Winston himself hopped in a red Ferrari and took off, returning 30 minutes later to socialize a bit more.

(In June, the 22-year-old player bought a $1.195 million home of his own in Odessa.)

The Bayshore Boulevard event was not a true “open” house because attendance was by invitation-only. Zales typically arranges smaller, private showings of luxury homes for serious buyers, who are required to provide a proof of funds or letter of credit.

That way “I can make sure the buyer is verified and qualified,” she says. “This is impossible to do in an open house as we cannot verify who’s coming into our sellers’ homes.”

Frank Malowany, an agent with Smith & Associates in St. Petersburg, also eschews open houses “for the sake of privacy of the individual and also the security of the property,” he says. Instead, he and his wife, Rebecca, rely on Smith’s affiliation with a global real state network as well as on their own contacts.

This spring, the couple landed the highest priced sale ever of a Tampa Bay condo — $6.9 million for a penthouse in downtown St. Petersburg’s Ovation, The condo never went on the market, but was sold by matching the Malowanys’ privacy-seeking client with an out-of-state buyer they knew was looking for a luxury waterfront home in the city.

“I think at the end of the day it’s those 30 years of contacts,” Malowany says.

Eager to expand their luxury business, a dozen Keller Williams agents recently gathered to strategize at a new waterfront home listed at $2.3 million near St. Petersburg Eckerd College They agreed that contacts are important but also complained that St. Petersburg — despite all the buzz in national media about its arts and food scene — is having a hard time attracting high- end buyers because of the poor reputation of its schools.

One agent, Dana Bickford, said she had a client who almost bought a $2.75 million house in St. Petersburg but decided not to because he couldn’t get his children in private schools. Other agents said buyers are drawn to South Tampa because of its excellent — and public — Plant High School.

And outside the area, St. Petersburg still isn’t nearly as well known as Tampa, broker Rachel Sartain said. She recounted a call from a man who planned to attend a baseball game in St. Petersburg and wanted to know if he needed to get a room elsewhere.

“I’m shocked,” Sartain said, “that someone didn’t know we had hotels in St. Petersburg and they were going to drive 40 minutes to Clearwater.”