Cover story: How agents break into the luxury market

by Evi Arthur

To many agents, working in the luxury sub-market is the pinnacle of the industry. Oftentimes, selling luxury housing means access to a more exclusive — and maybe even famous — clientele, and it definitely means bigger closings, commissions and higher stakes. Being labeled as a “luxury agent” can mean great things for one’s career, but being unprepared for the challenge can be just as bad as failing to reach that level in the first place.

The luxury market is taking off in Atlanta and throughout the country, making for great opportunities for agents looking to break into the business. And while there are a number of an agent’s already acquired skills that will come in handy in selling luxury properties, there are challenges and nuances to this sub-market that successful agents must keep a hand on.

“You don’t have to own a million-dollar house to sell a million-dollar house,” says Marc Castillo, a broker with Coldwell Banker. “But you intricately have to know the details of what constitutes a standard home and a luxury home.”

Getting started

While the luxury agent label denotes a certain kind of success and status, everyone’s path to becoming a top producer is different. While there are some overnight successes, there are others who take longer to reach that point. But all successful agents get to sell luxury by sticking to what they know best and working extremely hard.

Castillo, an 18-year-veteran of the industry, had his first ever listing priced at $1 million. The home was in his neighborhood where he had just built a 6,000-square foot house, so he was intimately aware of the neighborhood and the quality of it’s homes.

“I was able to speak to the quality of the materials, the finishes,” he says. “It was a market I’ve always known because it was my personal experience.”

Shanna Smith, broker with Dorsey Alston, also had her first ever listing be a luxury property. That was not a coincidence or beginner’s luck, either. Before becoming an agent two years ago, Smith had a staging company, where she worked with new condo developers and luxury homes alike to show them off during the selling process. She also was a property investor prior to selling, she says.

So when it came time to sell homes, Smith turned to the clientele she meet through her previous business, which happened to include many business executive types, she says. That proved to be her entry into the luxury selling market.

“In general, I work on a referral basis,” she says. “I’ve been lucky to have been referred to successful business leaders and CEOs and have been able to represent them in their properties.”

Marsha Sell, broker with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia, just celebrated her 45th year in the real estate industry. She’s now one of the top luxury agents in the area, but her route to such a status was circuitous. Like the other agents, her entry to the luxury market required her to focus on an area she knew and with clients she had experience with.

Read more from our Luxury issue

After seeing some success as a young agent, Sell and her husband — who was also an agent at the time — joined a country club in their neighborhood. That allowed them to meet people who were comfortably in the luxury price point, and the couple leveraged those contacts to break into the field.

“I sort of graduated into it over the years,” Sell says. “Being members of the country club [helped]. My husband’s job was to farm the country club, meet people and make connections. It worked.”

Everyone’s path into the luxury market might be different, but there are traits that all agents must share in order to be successful in the field.

Traits of a luxury producer

In essence, a home sale is a home sale. Every deal needs a buyer and a seller, and each party in the deal needs a representative that will work to get them the best terms possible. That is true of luxury homes and starter homes.

Luxury buyers, however, have much different tastes and expectations for their home buying or selling experience. Often, a luxury buyer has purchased other property before, and they are usually very financially literate and have a very specific idea of what they’re looking for.

“When you’re dealing with someone who has a home worth several million dollars, even if they have millions invested, this is likely they’re most emotional multi-million dollar investment,” Castillo says. “You have to be a strong negotiator, understanding the delicate nature of the financials of someone at this point.”

These buyers and sellers are generally knowledgable about the process. But an agent must not only be able to speak the language of a luxury buyer, they must know more than their client if they are to provide adequate service.

“It’s understanding the market, having knowledge of what’s out in the marketplace and taking the time to focus on the details,” Smith says. “I really enjoy getting out and evaluating the market for my clients. I certainly think that’s very important.”

Luxury buyers are particularly interested in a home’s furnishings and amenities, and agents must be on top of the newest trends, Castillo says.

“Whether an agent is going to succeed in selling luxury is in the details, like knowing the difference between Carrara marble and Calacatta marble,” he says. “Calacatta is three times the price but they look nearly identical. Do you know why one is worth so much more? There’s a thousand of these little details. You have to be on top of design trends.”

Knowing these details shows an agents level of knowledge, but it also comes in handy when it comes to negotiations and advising a client, Castillo says.

“It’s those details that not only will impress a seller, but you will be able to speak to the quality of their home,” he says. “You should be able to speak to these details and tell them why it adds value.”

And, of course, professionalism is key in dealing with this group, Sell says. If you’re working with a business executive, you should be dressed like one yourself, she says.

“It seems redundant to mention how professional you have to be, but it’s amazing how many agents out there do not grasp that,” she says. “You treat all customers and clients alike with the same professionalism. It is just a different level when you’re dealing with the luxury buyer.”

How to market

Odds are a homebuyer worth millions isn’t picking their real estate agent from a bus stop ad, nor are they likely to give much thought to a placement on Zillow or other platforms, agents say. Word of mouth is best when trying to get one’s name out in this market. But if that fails, there are steps one can take to find more luxury clients.

Luxury buyers covet status, so associating with other luxury brands can help, Sell says. One of the reasons she recently joined Bershire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia is because of their advertising in luxury magazines and other outlets read by wealthy buyers.

“We have a full page ad in every luxury magazine every month, marketing the company,” she says. “We also have at least one page, if not a two-page ad of individual properties. Included in that is 40,000 websites. I don’t know of anybody that does the same marketing.”

Castillo says agents shouldn’t just be content with advertising in local publications. In a global city like Atlanta, the perfect luxury buyer could be anywhere. Indeed, Castillo says he once sold a home to Chinese buyer who saw it in a translated edition of Architectural Digest.

“Marketing that reaches outside of the marketing area is key,” he says. “Are you advertising in Unique Homes? Homes and Estate magazine? Are you getting pull out sections on the Wall Street Journal? Can you get a feature up for a home? That’s bragging rights for my seller and a potential buyer. You almost have to be a press secretary for this property.”

While the particulars of how to interact, market and meet luxury buyers is different from that of regular buyers, the basics of the process are the same. An agent that’s successful selling modestly priced homes can move into the more exclusive market so long as they have mastered the basics of the industry, are willing to learn and have a strong work ethic.

“Having confidence, that’s very important,” Smith says. “Understand that every buyer has needs, and it’s important to know what those are.”

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