When I first called Melissa Leonard, she asked, “Can you call me back? I have Action News here with their cameras and everything.” Leonard is the Philadelphia-area Coldwell Banker Realtor whose listing, “50 Shades of Maple Glen”—a lovely brick colonial with five bedrooms, an updated kitchen, and a “private adult sexual oasis” in the basement—has been viewed more than 500,000 times on Redfin since it went live less than 24 hours ago. Why did she, a real estate professional, decide to stage the house with BDSM gear and a sex swing? Does a viral listing sell more quickly? I talked to Leonard by phone from the eye of the storm, as she drove back to her office—though our call was interrupted by angry neighbors.
Slate: How was your TV appearance? It sounds crazy right now.
Melissa Leonard: It has been. I did ABC, I did Fox, every magazine’s calling me. And now I’m hearing sites are taking the basement photos down.
Who’s taking them down?
I don’t even know if they can do that. We uploaded to a main BrightMLS site, and it goes to all the real estate sites from that, and they took it down. Zillow kept it, Redfin took it down, but now they’re down everywhere because BrightMLS seems to have taken them down. I have to look into it. But I own those photos.
So you can keep them on your site.
I had Philly police here, and all the TV channels.
Hold on, now the neighbors are flagging me down. They’re really upset. You probably want to listen to this. Hello, sir.
Male voice: Are you the real estate agent?
Leonard: Yes. I’m Melissa.
Male voice: We’re very upset about this whole thing. We do not want something like this in our neighborhood. Take that off the internet. That’s disgusting. We don’t want that.
Leonard: Sir, if the owner wants those photos on the listing, that’s their choice!
Male voice: You’ve got to take them down! We live next door and we don’t want this!
Leonard: You’re angry at me but you’re really angry at the owner. I’m trying to sell the house as fast as possible.
Male voice: People are all over the neighborhood and they’re all saying they’re here to see the sex house!
Leonard: Well, they’re just here because of the news trucks. They want to see what’s going on.
Female voice: Look, I know for a fact people are not here to buy the house. They just want to see the room.
Leonard: We’re not showing to anyone without a Realtor. We’re not letting people just walk in.
Male voice: Who is your supervisor?
Leonard [to Slate]: Can I call you back?
[Fifteen minutes later.]
That seemed intense!
He’s cool now. I told him, “Look, I’m just selling the house as quickly as possible.”
People seem really worked up.
I think they’re really angry! Like, “They’re whipping people sexually around in there!” I’m like, “Listen, it’s a lifestyle.”
Did you get the sense they had any idea what was going on in that house?
I think they were in the dark. I think they didn’t know anything until this morning. He’s like, “Did you know that house is on Airbnb?” I’m like, yes, duh.
How did you react when you first saw this house?
The seller called me, saying, “I need a Realtor who’s outside the box, who can work with something different.” I said, “OK, I’m driving, but send me the photos and I’ll look when I get home.” He’s like, “I need you to pull over.” So I pull over and I looked at them and I laughed. I laughed! I called him and I’m like, “You’ve got this whole little sexual oasis.” So then I went over and looked at the house. I had a straight face. I said, “I can sell this. We can sell this.” And here we are! We’re on TV, magazines are calling, you’re calling me.
It’s a beautiful house in a great neighborhood, a great school district. Someone called me for a client in New York and said they want the house but they don’t want the sex stuff. I said, “You don’t have to have it! You can take it out!”
In my experience, Realtors tell clients to depersonalize their houses when staging. Take down family photos, whatever. Why did you decide to stage this house and include this stuff?
He wanted to keep it because of the Airbnb business. He told me it had to be what it is. I’m cool with it. That’s why people are so interested in the house now.
Do viral listings sell faster? Obviously it helps to get more eyes on it, but is there a risk that the house becomes notorious? Will people not like it because it went viral?
I think that people are gonna like that it went viral. It’s gonna bring more people to the house and it’s going to sell faster.
You don’t think there’s a downside.
No, there’s no downside.
The slideshow really tells a story. When you were creating the listing, how did you decide where in the slideshow to put the basement photos?
So I put the whole house up, like 25 photos including every room, the yard. I kept the basement at the end. After the basement there’s just duplicate photos. I wanted to grab their attention for the whole house, first.
So the selling point is the house, not the sex room.
Yeah, I was trying to do that so we would sell the house for what it is. It’s a beautiful house! This is just what makes it different.
Did you hope that the listing might go viral?
I thought it had potential. I contacted Philadelphia magazine last week and told them about it, but I didn’t call anyone else. And then today, we had local news stations calling first thing in the morning, and now magazines are calling me. So you know what: It went viral.
There’s not that much equipment hanging on the wall in the basement. Looks like one whip, one flail. Does the basement have ample closet space for bondage equipment?
Yes, it does.
Good closets in the basement?
It … it has a lot of stuff going on.
Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Seen the movies? Did you know this was a whole thing?
I saw the first two of the movies. I only read maybe a couple of chapters of the book. That was the first thing that came to mind when I saw it: This guy has Fifty Shades of Grey going on his basement!* But I know that it’s a way of life for people. Philly has clubs for this. I go out, I know about nightlife, they nickname me Philly Socialite on Instagram, so I go out all the time. Nothing bothered me.
Maple Glen seems pretty staid. What advice would you give to whoever buys this house to make peace with neighbors who are now up in arms?
It’ll be fine! It probably will go to a suburban family, because it’s such a great neighborhood! And whoever buys it, whether that person’s into that or not, they’ll never know. They never knew until now, until they saw the listing! You know, they have to kind of mind their own business. Maybe you’re not into it, but they’re not hurting you. Nothing’s out in the open.
Have you taken people in to tour the house already?
I have not taken in anybody by myself. But a few Realtors took people in this morning. But I’m gonna make sure they’re qualified before I take someone. If you’re going to the trouble to go through a Realtor, I’m sure that Realtor is not gonna waste their time if you’re not serious.
Melissa, there was one thing in the house that really, truly, shocked me. The island sinks in the master bath. What is the story there? Do people like that?
The dual vanity? Yeah, usually they’re next to each other or across. This is a little unusual. But it’s so spacious in the master bath, with the soaking tub and the private toilet. It really makes sense for the space.
So you’d buy a house with … an island vanity?
Correction, Feb. 8, 2019: This piece originally misspelled the title of the book Fifty Shades of Grey.