‘Nobody Cares!’ Rich Unknowns Try Celebrity Tricks to Hide House Hunting

Mark Zuckerberg's Lake Tahoe home in Tahoe City, CA

Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal

Real-estate agent Antonio del Rosario spent $400 one afternoon shepherding a Tony-winning actress through four New York City apartments.

The money wasn’t for taxis or lunch. He paid doormen to turn a blind eye.

The client didn’t want anyone to know where she was looking, so Mr. del Rosario tipped the doormen $100 to put on airline sleep masks before they arrived and when they left. “They were super cooperative,” he said.

Disguises, fake names and ironclad nondisclosure agreements are tools of the trade for agents tending to rich and famous clients worried about privacy and security.

As cameras and social media seemingly keep tabs on every neighborhood, celebrity buyers and sellers are going underground, agents said.

“Everything is so trackable online—it’s so much easier to find where someone lives,” said real-estate agent Ian Slater, of New York City.

Thomas L. Campbell, an agent in Naples, Fla., worked with a celebrity worried about being recognized when arriving at the city’s small airport. The client instead flew to a larger airport more than 100 miles away.

Mr. Campbell was instructed to hold a sign at the arrival gate marked only with his initials. Even he didn’t know her identity until the film star got off the plane. “I understood as soon as I knew who I was dealing with,” he said.

While high-profile figures like Mark Zuckerberg are known for making stealthy real-estate buys, some of the most extreme secrecy measures are demanded by people you’ve never heard of. “Sometimes I want to say, ‘Nobody cares!’” said Compass real-estate agent Cindy Scholz, of New York.

One such client was joined by her driver and bodyguard to see apartments in downtown Manhattan, Mr. Slater said. The guard would check around the block before the woman entered a building. He told Mr. Slater that the woman’s car carried a month’s supply of food and water.

“He said, ‘We have a place to go, and I can’t tell you where it is, in the event of any disaster,’” Mr. Slater recalled.

Florida real-estate agent Florian Jouin said he’s had wealthy but obscure clients ask him to sign a nondisclosure agreement. “During the showings they asked me to call them a different name,” he said.

Privacy demands don’t always end at the close of escrow. Mr. Jouin previously worked at Miami’s Residences at W Hotel South Beach, a condo-hotel where residents get room service and housekeeping services.

“Most owners in a condo-hotel enjoy that,” Mr. Jouin said. One couple, though, bought a unit there and refused to let anybody in their room, putting invisible tape on the front door to make sure.

“I said, ‘Why did you buy in a condo-hotel where everybody can enter the room?’” Mr. Jouin recalled. “They said, ‘We like the pool.’”

Residents and guests crowd the pool area at Miami’s Residences at W Hotel South Beach.

Residents and guests crowd the pool area at Miami’s Residences at W Hotel South Beach.

Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal

Sellers are as obsessed. Miami real-estate agent Giovanna Fernandez recalled a $7 million waterfront home in Fort Lauderdale for sale by a high-profile couple. The house was equipped with “probably 40 cameras” and a security guard, she said.

The wife, a well-known actress, refused to leave the house during showings. Instead, she retreated to a hidden room off the master closet. The celebrity and her dog stayed in the secret room, set up with a couch and TV, during open houses.

“I would say, ‘Listen, this is a four-hour event, are you sure you’re OK?’”  Ms. Fernandez said. “She said, ‘No, I’m good.’”

Ms. Fernandez suspected the secret room was equipped with a monitor so the client could keep an eye on the house during the showings.

Security cameras are now so common in megamansions that many agents said they assume they are being recorded at all times. “I don’t even pick wedgies when I’m in some of these houses,” said Ms. Fernandez of Brown Harris Stevens.

While meeting with a client moving to New York City for a tech job, real-estate agent James Swierczewski was peppered with questions about online security. “At first it was part of the conversation,” he said, “but I realized he was trying to figure out if I had a basic grasp of security so he could trust me with his stuff.”

Mr. Swierczewski apparently passed muster and embarked on a search for a two-bedroom rental. Finding the apartment was the easy part.

The client wouldn’t send his financial documents because of Mr. Swierczewski’s laptop software. “He hated Windows,” said Mr. Swierczewski, who agreed to install a Linux operating system.

It took two days to get it to work, forcing Mr. Swierczewski to cancel appointments. “I almost threw my computer at the wall,” he said.

“We weren’t dealing with government secrets here,” Mr. Swierczewski said. “I tried to tell him that at one point, but it was lost on him.”

Ms. Scholz has one wealthy client who insisted on flying her to Hong Kong to meet in person before he agreed to work with her. Once there, the client asked if she would pretend to be an art adviser during a dinner with his entourage. She played along. “I’m happy no one was asking to buy any Matisses from me,” Ms. Scholz said.

Some clients want secrecy to keep other family members in the dark, she said, skittish about their children and relatives knowing their assets.

Ms. Scholz recalled a father saying, “I don’t want my daughter to know that I’m worth more to her dead than alive.”

One wealthy client purchased Manhattan homes for his siblings. He wanted to keep the transactions secret because he had spent $8 million for his brother’s apartment but only $3 million on his sister’s.

“He doesn’t like her as much,” Ms. Scholz said. Given such online sources as StreetEasy and Zillow, the secret isn’t likely to hold.

By Thanksgiving, she said, “they’re going to find out.”

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Source: Housing Trends Feed