Unlikely Allies: Dan Wiggins, (far left) of Mercedes Homes in Orlando, Fla., at a Realtor luncheon used to introduce agents to one of Mercedes' newer communities. Each attendee receives gifts, prizes, and information on the quality and design benefits of the new homes.

It is said that the way to a Realtor's heart is through money–and food. Ever been to an "open house" for Realtors? Part home tour and part kaffeeklatsch, these gatherings are mostly intended for members of the local Multiple Listings Service (MLS) to familiarize themselves with a property that has just gone on the market. But they also are a primary source of workday nutrition for agents complete with the finger sandwiches and pickles, sometimes with more elaborate fare, and always with talk of the market–what's moving and what's not, and what's the commission split going to be between the buying and selling broker.

ALL SMILES: Cultivating Realtor relations is like building an extended salesforce. "After time, you know when [his or her] car pulls in the parking lot, you'll be able to write a sale," says Dan Wiggins. Photo: Riku + Anna From the seller's perspective, once one has the Realtor's heart, the mind is quick to follow, and a sale not too long after that. Or so the theory goes. Often, hundreds of agents pass through a property, thereby exponentially increasing the chances that a match between a prospective home buyer and the property will be made. This is one reason Realtors so diligently guard the MLS.

In recent years, big builders haven't had much use for real estate agents and for one big reason: The market was so hot that they didn't need them. Builders invested in their own sales staffs, sales centers, and model homes and saw no need to pay outside commissions to help move inventory. Things have changed. "Builders really need the real estate industry right now," says Suzanne Foels a Realtor with Prudential Florida WCI Realty in Orlando, Fla. "And they know it."

Realty Check

As the industry begins one of the toughest spring selling seasons in more than a decade, builders across the country are redirecting incentive dollars away from the home buyer toward earning the affections of Realtors.

At David Weekly Homes in Dallas, for example, an elaborate Realtor launch was held last fall to kick off a program replete with perks, including an opportunity to win a cruise. In Northville, Mich., the Toll Brothers sales teams don't hesitate to lavish the Realtors' desks with floral or gourmet food excesses after assists on sales, and they're always concocting the next seasonally themed party for real estate agent VIPs in its community centers.

The conspicuousness of these tokens of gratitude is purely intentional. They want every agent to know that working with Toll makes nice things happen.

In McKinney, Texas, D.R. Horton is renowned for its cash giveaways at Realtor luncheons. Attendees drop their card in a fishbowl and hope they'll be chosen for $100, $200, and $300 prizes. Horton even lavished $5,000 bonus incentives on Realtors who could close a buyer in specified communities where inventory overhang was excessive.

Mercedes Homes of Melbourne, Fla., recently chose Valentine's Day to introduce its new Orange Bay Branch Community in Kissimmee, Fla., with an elaborate spread of snacks and sandwiches, cash prizes, and a heart-shaped box of chocolates for every attendee. It was worthy of prime home buying prospects. But the bash was for Realtors.

The party was only one element of Mercedes' initiative to enlist Realtors into its sales program. Its focus is to enhance communications to and from the Realtor community. One of the primary elements of this initiative, implemented last fall, was the creation of a new sales consultant's position, and hiring Dan Wiggins, a sales professional with extensive experience dealing with the real estate sales community.

"When we started to notice a decrease in traffic and a decrease in sales, we knew we had to go after it from all fronts," says Angie Colston, Mercedes' corporate sales trainer. "We went back to examine the fundamentals and then, to figure out ways to attack it creatively."

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.