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No listing, no problem: Homes sell in California before they're on the market

| Friday, June 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Ryan Mathys spent weeks prospecting.

He drove up and down the little avenue in Solana Beach, Calif., taking notes and knocking on doors. He scoured public records. He blanketed the seaside neighborhood in northern San Diego County with inquiries.

All the detective work had a dollars-and-cents purpose: to find homes the owners would be willing to sell.

Housing prices in many markets are rising sharply, and there's a shortage of houses available for sale.

So agents like Mathys are resorting to reconnaissance and back-channel networks to find homes that haven't yet hit the market. They're cold-calling homeowners with offers and targeting specific neighborhoods with direct mail. Some come bearing bizarre gifts in return for a listing. One agent offered a seller the use of his exotic car; one of his clients offered free dogs.

And they're chasing so-called pocket listings, homes privately marketed among those in the know. The low-profile nature of the listings makes them hard to quantify. But agents and other real estate experts say they've become common in the booming Southern California market, where the median home price shot up nearly 25 percent in the last year.

Mathys — a 10-year veteran who, with his partner Tracie Kersten, specializes in high-end San Diego properties — said he'd never before seen the market this tight or felt the need to get this creative.

His hunt in Solana Beach began this year when Marc Snyder, a technology executive from the East Coast, called him looking for a future retirement home. Snyder, 46, was selective. He fell hard for a particular house on a narrow street. He made an offer but lost out to an all-cash buyer.

So Mathys sent a letter to every home on the ocean-view side of the street to see whether someone else was interested in selling. He outlined his client's personal story and qualifications. Mathys knocked on doors. He searched property records for the names of homeowners and reached out through social media and email.

He finally persuaded the owner of a three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch home with a panoramic view of the Pacific. Snyder offered $2.15 million for the home, which is set for closing soon. He plans to remodel. The price means a hefty commission for Mathys. (Agents for the buyer and seller typically split a percentage of the sale price.)

Mathys finds his approach worthwhile. “You feel more proactive than sitting there waiting for the next one to come up — and then watching 10 other people swarm all over it,” he said. “It gives you a little bit more of a feeling of control in this market, where buyers don't have that much control.”

Sellers, by contrast, need only hint at a desire to sell, and a line will form.

“They are spreading the word through whisper campaigns or pocket listings, through the broker network and the Web,” said Nick Segal, a real estate agent who estimates that 30 percent of the deals at his Partners Trust firm are secured without a listing. “You say, ‘I have got something coming on the market; it's quiet.' “

Many of the low-profile deals involve investors, who have swarmed Southern California in recent months, closing deals quickly with cash. Whether agents rake in big commissions or go hungry in these arrangements depends on their savvy and network of contacts.

“It is a market where the strong survive,” said Michael Gray, a real estate agent in La Canada Flintridge, Calif.

Pocket listings have been common for some time among celebrities, primarily because of privacy concerns. Now they're proliferating across the economic spectrum because of the mismatch between supply and demand.

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