Want to know what it takes to sell a luxury home in a softening market? Ask Anh-Tuan and April Truong. In the fall, Dr. Truong, a cosmetic surgeon, and Ms. Truong, a stay-at-home mother to their two children, sold their 3,200-square-foot townhome in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood for $1.175 million after just 40 days on the market—while similar homes in the same condominium development languished for months.
What gave the Truongs the edge? New quartzite countertops, new hardwood floors and a neutral, uncluttered décor—all part of a $30,000 upgrade in 2014.
“Sales have been slow over the last six months—you really have to stand out. Their place showed like a model unit,” said Lauren Schuh-Dayton, the couple’s real-estate agent and vice president of sales for Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty. Within weeks of accepting the winning bid on their townhome, the Truongs bought an updated 1888 greystone house in Chicago’s Lakeview East neighborhood for $1.5 million—$49,000 below the asking price.
Retractable glass-wall systems that fold into accordion pleats or disappear into recessed pockets make for a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor living spaces—and are popular with luxury home buyers.
Herman Ekendahl-Dreyer for The Wall Street Journal
With the luxury market cooling, home sellers may have to invest in upgrades to get top dollar. According to an analysis by Realtor.com, high-end home sales rose 7% in October over the same month in 2017—the second-slowest increase in over two years. Meanwhile, the total number of properties listed at or above $1 million increased by over twice that rate—indicating that the supply of luxury homes may be outstripping demand.
“Inventory starts to pile up because buyers don’t see value at that price level,” said Javier Vivas, Realtor.com’s director of economic research. “Buyers are being more demanding.” (News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates Realtor.com under license from the National Association of Realtors.)
To uncover the secrets of selling a luxury home in a softening market—and find out which amenities are attracting buyers—Mansion reached out to brokers, real-estate analysts, developers and designers. Here are their picks, in no particular order. One takeaway: A $10,000 Japanese toilet can clinch a sale.
Retractable glass walls
“Light-filled,” “bright,” “southern” and “exposure” are among the most frequent keywords used to describe the luxury homes priced at $1 million and above that sold most quickly, according to a Realtor.com analysis of more than 45,000 luxury listings. For brokers and developers, all those words mean just one thing: glass.
“When [clients] talk about ‘bright’ they are talking about big windows and sliding glass walls that open to the outside,” said Billy Rose, founder and president of The Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif.
At the Preserve at Upper Saddle River, N.J., a new Toll Brothers community, retractable glass walls are luring buyers to single-family homes priced from $1.4 million. “People love the glass,” said Jed Gibson, president of Toll Architecture, noting that over a third of new owners in its four upscale New Jersey developments opted for various movable glass-wall systems.
“One thing I advise my clients to do if they can afford it, is to rip out french doors to an outdoor living space and put in accordion glass doors,” said Collette McDonald, a Re/Max agent in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. “They give traditional floorplans that contemporary, updated look.”
“Ten-foot ceilings, cathedral ceilings, vaulted ceilings” are all in demand, said Susie O. Johnson, a real-estate agent with Coldwell Banker Gundaker in metro St. Louis.
Paul Schumacher of custom home-builder Schumacher Homes said his clients willingly pay a premium for loftier master bedrooms and great rooms. “We always tell clients, ‘Let’s put the money and the investment in things you can’t change later. I can change the finish on the floors, but I can’t give you extra volume on ceilings,’” he said.
In New York’s pricey condo market, 13-foot ceilings are now in vogue, according to John Gomes and Fredrik Eklund, who head a team at Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “The first thing buyers ask when they walk in—before they ask about square footage—is, ‘How high are the ceilings?’” Mr. Gomes said.
Anh-Tuan and April Truong with children Lola, 6, and Jonah, 10.
Katrina Wittkamp for The Wall Street Journal
Quartzite, a lustrous natural stone that’s harder than granite and less prone to staining than marble, is the new star of the chef’s kitchen.
“Light whites and grays are replacing darker granites. Buyers like to see a light, neutral countertop, not something so personalized or so busy that it’s competing with the tile on the backsplash,” said Susan Boss, a broker-associate with Martha Turner Sotheby’s International Realty in Houston who sells homes in the city’s Rivercrest and Memorial neighborhoods.
A tricked-out butler’s pantry with an extra wine fridge, icemaker or dishwasher can serve as an extension of the home’s entertaining space—or hide the messy prep work. And according to Realtor.com’s analysis, they are very popular with home buyers. “We looked at luxury properties with, say, a butler’s pantry, and compared that to luxury properties without in the same area,” said Mr. Vivas. “These homes are spending 40 to 60 fewer days on the market.”
To hook a buyer willing to spend well over $1 million on a New York City condo, a master bathroom must have a steam shower and a high-tech Japanese toilet—“two things I will never ever live without,” Mr. Eklund said.
In San Francisco, the spa bathroom makeover has become standard in high-end remodels, according to designer Cindy Bayon. “Steam showers, heated floors—you assume that’s in the project going in,” she said.
Toll Brothers has gone all-in with tubs. “It’s a big trend for us. Our buyers told us they wanted free-standing tubs,” Mr. Gibson said. In Houston, clients also show a preference for master bathrooms with dual toilets, said Ms. Boss. The status commode today, according to several agents: the Toto Neorest dual-flush model, which has a heated seat, multiple wash modes and an automatic air-purifying system. Retail price: $10,200.
April and Anh-Tuan Truong’s 1888 Greystone house in Chicago has been impeccably restored; original solid-wood pocket doors separate the dining room, pictured, from a formal living room.
Katrina Wittkamp for The Wall Street Journal
App-based home-automation systems that can play music, control lighting systems and window treatments, regulate thermostats and access security cameras are gaining in popularity. “It is now expected that a home has an ample amount of technology,” said Gary Gold, executive vice president at Hilton & Hyland,
In areas where the cost of square-footage is high, a garage that can accommodate three or four cars is a prized amenity.
“Buyers love garages. That’s really what turns a lot of guys on—their eyes light up,” said Michael Costello, an associate with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Palm Beach, Fla. “Most of our buyers, even if it’s just a couple, tend to have three, four, five, six cars.”
“In the garage itself, people are looking for electric car hookups, as well as the ability to add a lift if they are a car collector,” Ms. McDonald said.
Barn, carriage house or in-law apartment
Barns aren’t just for horses. Outbuildings that have been remodeled as party spaces, home offices or guest cottages lure buyers. “Having a barn on the property can be really valuable—whether it’s used as a studio or as a guesthouse or cottage for family,” said Sally Slater, an associate broker with Douglas Elliman in Bedford, N.Y. “And you can get income from it.”
More buyers are asking about home generators, particularly in hurricane-prone areas. “It has become much more important than it was 10 years ago,” said Ms. Boss, whose clients learned to love generators in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Adding a small generator for backup power to protect a valuable wine collection can cost as much as $50,000, she said, while larger systems for the home can cost $100,000 or more.
“It’s one of those undervalued things, but use it once, and you’re the happiest person,” said Judy Gibbons, a broker associate with Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Chicago.
“Light grays are really popular—whether it’s flooring, or wall colors,” Mr. Costello said. He advises clients ditch heavy drapes and put antique furnishings in storage. “Heavy brown furniture is out. It’s not easy telling a client that buyers are turned off by that look.”
And never underestimate a good coat of paint. Mr. Gold swears by a Dunn-Edwards hue called “Swiss Coffee.” “When in doubt, white it out,” he said.
Turn-offs to luxury-home buyers
Agents and designers say what’s passe in home design.
2. Jetted bathtubs
3. French doors with mullions
4. Unsightly built-in entertainment systems
6. Heavy brown furniture