Hillary Caston’s acting isn’t the stuff of Oscar nominations. Not to be unkind, but it would be sort of a stretch even to call it acting.
As real estate marketing goes, though, it’s certainly unique.
Caston, a Prudential California agent in Laguna Beach, makes videos to showcase homes for sale. But these videos aren’t the predictable slide shows set to music or the agent walking through the house with a camera, announcing — as if you couldn’t tell — "Here’s the kitchen."
Instead, we may encounter her online in used-car pitchman mode, talking at warp speed and begging us to "Come on down!" to her "Used-house Extravaganza!" She dashes around the home and touts its granite countertops and stainless refrigerator as if they were antilock brakes and side airbags.
Or she may dress up like Willy Wonka — though instead of a chocolate factory, the fantasy tour here is of one rather eccentrically decorated house.
But mostly, we see Caston as "the break-in Realtor," sneaking into one house after another in order to satisfy her curiosity about the place while nobody’s home, trailed by a videographer who repeatedly mutters, unseen, about how they really ought to get the heck out of there, he’s not going to go to jail for her, etc.
In the still-developing genre of real estate video, agents who are showing off a glam master bath don’t actually climb into the tub to see how it fits. Caston does.
"It’s just my personality," Caston said. "I have always loved entertaining people."
Caston started making videos about 18 months ago when she became convinced they were the best medium to attract attention to a house. She thought, however, that typical real estate videos were excruciatingly boring.
"I wanted an edge," Caston said. "I wanted to step outside of the box and I wasn’t afraid to do it. What I wanted was something that was totally animated, a story that would keep somebody’s interest and show the house and that was fun."
So she and her team hatched the idea of "breaking in" to a listing and — in her own kind of strained homage to Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett — she acts downright silly while still managing to point out a house’s upscale kitchen, its spacious backyard or its killer views of the Pacific within a three- to five-minute time frame.
Of the 20 videos so far (seen at her website, TheCoastalPropertyExperts.com and elsewhere), 11 have been "break-ins," she said.
"I’m changing it around now, the breaking-and-entering," Caston said. "I get bored easily. So what we did recently was the ‘Willy Wonka’ takeoff, and we may use whatever TV characters that may be hot. We’ll play with that for awhile."
Not that there’s much chance of them veering toward anything serious. Caston recently met a movie stuntman who said he wanted to be in one of her videos.
"He said, ‘You know, I usually get $2,500 a day,’ " she said. "But he wasn’t interested in money. He said, ‘What I need in my resume is to be set on fire, that’s the only thing I don’t have.’ "
So Caston began researching how she could grant him his wish while still showing off a house, culminating in the flaming stunt man jumping into its swimming pool.
She almost pulled it off, she said. Although a local fire department had agreed to cooperate, the project stopped in its tracks when she discovered that liability insurance would cost $10,000.
Her videos, sans flames, have individually drawn upwards of 5,000 views on YouTube.com and other video sites, as well as on Facebook and Twitter, she said.
She’s sure the online attention helped create buzz about the houses, though she can’t confirm that they’ve actually led directly to sales — just buzz.
"In all of my listings (some of the videos are done for other agents), we sold those homes in 10 days or less," she said. "People will contact me and will say, ‘I saw the video.’ "
The cause-and-effect is irrelevant, she said. What matters is drawing attention to a property.
"Does an ad in the L.A. Times sell a house?" she asked. "Video just gives you another venue for exposure that’s far greater than just putting a picture of a home on Twitter and saying, ‘Look at my new listing, duh.’ "
Caston is a passionate promoter of video marketing for real estate, though she insists that agents needn’t resort to her brand of slapstick and that their productions needn’t be so elaborate.
Her most recent production, the Wonka-themed video, was her most expensive, at about $500, because of the cost of renting her costume, she said.
"I have a scriptwriter, and (there’s) a video editor, and then there’s a cost to distribute it to other media beyond YouTube," she said. The paid cameraman is "James," who inevitably complains in the soundtrack that, yes, the house is great but he’d really rather be somewhere else.
She declines to identify him further because he’s her boyfriend, she said.
Caston also has invested in a high-quality camera, though she said the average real estate agent needn’t use anything more elaborate than a Flip camera — just do it, she said.
"They should be doing a two-minute-or-less video, and make it happy and fun and sexy," she said. "I wouldn’t expect them to shoot this kind of video. That would be foolish."
The marketplace, particularly the generation just reaching adulthood, is going to demand video, she said.
"Every home needs to be shot in video because every home needs to be seen if it’s to be sold," she said. "You’ve seen the numbers. People are looking online before they’re buying a home. Video is the name of the game — it’s only a small part of it, but it’s a very important part of it."
Caston said other agents haven’t criticized her comedic approach, to her knowledge. To the contrary, she said, several have approached her to do video "break-ins" for their own listings.
She’s aware, though, that some colleagues might not take her seriously because of her on-camera image.
Caston counters that she’s been in the business for 15 years and knows how to sell homes: She’s been recognized as being among the top 1 percent of Prudential agents nationwide. Last year, she said, she represented the buyer in a $22 million sale.
"Video doesn’t stand alone in my marketing portfolio — it is one marketing tool," she said.
"Three thousand and 4,000 hits, for a little nobody who doesn’t know what they heck they’re doing — that’s not bad."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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