Airsickness bags, aviation headsets and Dramamine are the new essentials for a select group of real-estate agents, who take top clients up in helicopters to show multimillion-dollar listings.
In cities like Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, flying real-estate agents score points with high-value clients by gliding over snarled traffic, swooping low over gated manses, and scoping out neighborhoods (and potential next-door neighbors) in a matter of minutes.
Ranch brokers in the Rocky Mountains and Texas can cover thousands of acres in an afternoon, while delivering views of rivers, canyons, and the occasional grizzly bear.
When we look at property anywhere, in central Florida or Idaho or Wyoming, we always use the helicopter because it gives you such a bird’s-eye view,” said Bernie Little, a commercial cattle owner who has a home in Ocala, Fla. and a ranch in Jackson, Wyo.
“To provide something that a really wealthy person would appreciate is not an easy thing to do,” said Chris Feurer, CEO of Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Chicago, which began offering helicopter viewings of properties with a minimum $1.5 million purchase price last fall.
Mr. Feurer said that he has budgeted $100,000 for the helicopter service this year. Jameson brokers have used it to show luxury condominiums and equestrian estates—and as a perk for top clients. Attorney Janice Anderson sold her $1.6 million condo in the city’s South Loop and bought a new one on Lake Michigan for just under $900,000 with broker Lauren Schuh.
As a thank you, Ms. Schuh took Ms. Anderson and her daughter for a victory lap over the city.
Pilots and real-estate agents strategize in advance to plan aerial house tours. The pilot collects the coordinates of the different homes and neighborhoods the agent wants to show, and uses them to program the day’s flight plan. The agent uses Google-based mapping software on an iPad to identify what those properties will look like from 500 feet in the air. If a home that isn’t listed catches the client’s eye, the agent can pinpoint the location for future reference, while the pilot zooms in for a close-up.
Eager to snag lucrative commissions instead of hourly fees, some commercial pilots have gotten their own real-estate licenses. Marc Hennes, a helicopter pilot and real-estate agent based in Fort Lauderdale, starts by asking clients if they’d like to view luxury properties with the chopper doors on or off.
Mr. Hennes, who sometimes brings a second pilot along, “because I can’t talk and point out properties while driving,” recently toured the site of a new luxury condominium with clients. “They couldn’t imagine what the views were like, so we flew right around the 12th story,” he said.
Elena Berman, an artist and wellness consultant, decided to list her $3.2 million lakeside home in California’s San Fernando Valley with John Mowatt, a pilot, flight instructor and real-estate agent, after he took her for a demo viewing in a Sikorsky S-76. Ms. Berman enjoyed the flight, if not the descent: “I had five minutes of nauseous time—you cannot look down so much.”
Mr. Mowatt, who co-founded Heli-Realtors in L.A., stocks the five helicopters he uses with airsickness wristbands and barf bags. Savvy brokers suggest Dramamine before boarding.
Viewings are occasionally delayed by bad weather or mechanical problems. One pilot had to make an emergency landing, turning a 45-minute viewing into a four-hour pit-stop. “The clients were a little frustrated,” said Heli-Realtors co-founder and broker Brett Lieberman.
More often, agents and pilots say, the helicopter is a great bonding tool. “A lot of these folks are pretty standoffish when they first meet us. As soon as you get them in the air and they see the beauty…they really lighten up,” said Mark Taylor, chief pilot and owner of Montana-based Rocky Mountain Rotors, who tours $40 million ranches with brokers such as Tim Murphy of Hall and Hall.
Mr. Murphy’s prospective buyers pay the aircraft fees themselves, which start at $1,400 an hour for a turbine helicopter. A client with an entourage—or a life insurance policy that prohibits single-engine helicopter flights—may require the twin-engine Bell 429 with seven passenger seats, for $4,650 an hour. An average tour can last five hours; two-day trips to view multiple ranches, with an overnight stay at a picturesque cabin, are not uncommon.
“We always find cool stuff that just blows the mind of these people who come from the city,” Mr. Murphy said.
Kevin Meier, an agent with duPerier Land Man, flies his clients over hunting and fishing ranches across Texas, sometimes covering 500 miles in one day. A former wildlife biologist, Mr. Meier uses his helicopter tours to spotlight a recreational ranch’s key selling points:
rivers and creeks—essential for fly-fishing—or a well-antlered deer herd. Lunch is provided, on the fly. “The client said, ‘Hey, let’s go and grab some lunch—I see some Dairy Queen’,” Mr. Meier recalled.
The pilot landed in the parking lot.