Ben Bacal has rocketed to the upper tier of residential real estate agents in Los Angeles, selling homes for the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Matthew Perry and AEG Live Chief Executive Randy Phillips in recent years. His meal ticket is the “pocket listing,” an increasingly popular way of selling celebrity homes by word of mouth instead of through the public Multiple Listing Service.

But a dispute with a former partner-turned-competitor has turned up accusations of illegal tactics and highlighted the fierce competitiveness of this high-end corner of the real estate world.

Bacal claims that pocket listings were responsible for most of his $135 million in home sales last year. But he has been accused by Hillel Sanowicz, another real estate agent to the stars whose clients include Mark Wahlberg, of stealing away deals. Bacal, in turn, has accused Sanowicz of posing as a former client and publishing defamatory reports about him on the Internet in order to damage his reputation.

Pocket listings are favored by celebrities and other high-profile sellers who might not want the general public waltzing through their living rooms – or bedrooms – during open houses. In a pocket listing, a home seller enlists a real estate agent to show the property to only a few other well-connected agents, keeping it out of view of the general market. The method has been around for a long time, but agents say it has become more popular because sellers might want to give an aura of exclusivity.

“All the stuff I’ve been showing lately are pockets,” said Stacy Gottula, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Previews International who has seen pocket listings shoot to more than 25 percent of her sales this year, up from about 10 percent three years ago. “There’s low inventory right now and very specific things that buyers are looking for. They want to look at all the housing, things they’ve never seen.”

But pocket listings can also engender cutthroat sales tactics. Sometimes an agent has only an informal agreement, not an exclusive contract, to sell a home. That means others can swoop in and close the deal.

Also, such word-of-mouth listings leave room for agents to create deals out of thin air – some have been accused of going door to door to tell homeowners a celebrity is interested in their home, then going back to the celebrity or another buyer with the home as a pocket listing.

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