Cover story: How to thrive in the luxury market

by Melanie Kalmar

Selling homes priced from $1 million on up in Atlanta’s luxury market requires a skillful approach to client relations and marketing. There is no room for mistakes. Socially clumsy behavior, like hounding a prospective buyer with phone calls or showing up late and unprepared to an appointment, will not be forgiven or forgotten. The luxury market is small and news travels fast. Marketing to this elite demographic of smart, wealthy and highly successful buyers has to be personable and creative to make an impression that beckons buyers to the closing table.

In this issue’s cover story, top producing agents candidly discuss how to thrive in the luxury market; the unspoken rules of working with buyers of high-end properties; the key feature buyers are looking for that has nothing to do with white kitchens or the number of bathrooms and bedrooms in a home; and the region of Atlanta that large numbers of luxury buyers aim to call home.

Communicate differently

Hosting a regular podcast puts Jere Metcalf, founding agent of Compass Atlanta, in a position to ask for advice from agents on her show who sell $100 million or more a year in residential properties. Many of them say utilizing the principles they learned from the book “Never Split the Difference” By Chris Voss, a former hostage negotiator for the FBI, got them to where they are today and continues to take them to the next level. “It’s about communicating and asking people questions in a way that you are actually listening to them and hearing them,” said Metcalf of Voss’ method. “While you are guiding the conversation, they feel in control.”

Voss’ tips are helpful because luxury buyers are different than mid-market buyers; they are inaccessible and used to people always trying to sell them something, Metcalf said. She compares prospecting for luxury buyers to the dating scene. Whereas a woman is going to be turned off by the man who begs for a date before he gives her time to get to know him and understand the type of person he is, luxury buyers don’t want to work with the agent who bombards them with phone calls.

“They are looking for the person who will listen to them, understand what they need, understand the market and align those two,” Metcalf said, noting they also expect the highest level of professionalism. “They are comparing their experience with you, to their experiences with the other advisors they deal with in different aspects of their lives.”

The bottom-line: when working with someone who makes a lot more money than you do and is very smart, that person shouldn’t be made to feel that you are trying to convince them of anything, Metcalf said. “You can lay out the information, because you have the expertise and experience with that, but give them the ability to process the information and make the right decision for themselves.” Her rule of thumb is never be defensive and never be desperate.

Follow the three P’s

Before taking clients out to luxury showings, Toni Itkin, a luxury broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokers, advises real estate professionals to do their research and show up prepared. Be able to differentiate a luxury property from a home under the $1 million mark. “It’s all in the details, Itkin said. “Know the difference between a Carrara Marble and a Calacatta Marble,” she said. “Be aware of the other properties on the market and those that have sold,” she said. “Know what makes them different from the one they’re viewing now. Pointing out what makes up that home and why it’s priced the way it is, is key to advising the client.” Her mantra is: always be professional, polished, prepared and punctual.

Forecast 12 months out

Always looking 12 months into the future, Ansley Atlanta founder and CEO Bonneau Ansley forecasts how he wants his business to look, run and feel and staffs it to meet the level of production he has set for himself. “You are not going to double your business every year if you continue to do the same things,” said Ansley, whose annual sales have reached over $175 million a year with the help of four assistants. “You have to make sure the habits you do today are on par with the dreams you set aside for tomorrow. If you are not creating new habits every year to get where you want to be 12 months from now, you’re not going to change your business, your production or the trajectory of your wealth.”

Host an unconventional open house

To prosper in the luxury market, agents always need to be doing what others are not, Ansley said. Case in point: he has dyslexia, a learning difference that gives him the gift of thinking outside of the box. It’s a strategy that has enabled him to double his production every year since 2009, when he started in the business. His version of an open house involves partnering with prestigious companies to get properties in front of audiences that can afford to buy them but may not be in the market to move until they visit a desirable estate. Ansley once filled an unfurnished mansion with art from a chic gallery, hosted an art party and landed a buyer who wasn’t even in the market to move. Another time, he invited members of an association for surgeons to test drive Ferraris that were parked in front an estate he was selling. Afterward, he invited them into the house for a drink. The event created buzz about the house among a group of people who could afford to buy it but may not have otherwise seen it.

Hot spots

Presently, the temperature of Atlanta’s luxury market is hot. In the first quarter of 2019, Buckhead experienced a 200 percent increase in the number of homes that sold for $3 million and up, compared to the same period last year, according to First Multiple Listing Service (FMLS). More specifically, 12 homes sold for upwards of $3 million during the first three months of the year, versus four during first quarter of 2018.

Buckhead boasts excellent schools and close proximity to jobs, cultural centers, transportation, highways and the airport. Is it any wonder homes are increasingly selling at a fast rate there? Metcalf recently ran the numbers and found that homes on the FMLS priced upwards of $1 million in Buckhead are selling at 95 percent of list. In May, properties stayed on the market for an average of 54 days, down from an average of 96 days last June, and continue on a path of selling quickly.

However, buyers can get more house for the money and pay lower taxes in neighboring Brookhaven, Itkin said. She also suggests buyers open themselves up to properties outside of the I-285 perimeter, areas such as Alpharetta and Roswell, that have homes on sprawling acreage. Looking further out may perfectly suit a buyer who is looking for an equestrian property or a country club lifestyle.

What buyers want

In the $1 million and up price range, Ansley said, sellers have the upper hand if they’re selling something pretty specific: brand new homes that have unique, extra spaces like outdoor covered rooms with fireplaces and TVs, in addition to a deck on the opposite side of the house or a pool cabana. “Places are the new thing,” Ansley said. “It’s not how many bedrooms and bathrooms that count. That matters, but it’s where can I entertain and have great rooms that are outside-in. That is what people want.”

On the resale end, it’s a buyer’s market, Itkin said, noting what buyers want in the $1 million and $2 million price range is really based on preference. Moving up in price, buyers of luxury properties $2 million and up want flex spaces that can turn an indoor room into an outdoor room by way of Nano Doors, accordion style glass doors that can pivot in increments to open up a whole wall, Ansley said. “It goes back to where do I want to have a glass of wine at night, smoke a cigar or open up my kitchen to the outdoors. All of those things make a home.”

What buyers avoid  

In Ansley’s opinion, whether it’s a buyers’ or sellers’ market depends on the house itself. In a good market, questionable houses, those with two objections, such as a below-grade, steep driveway and no bedroom on the main level, will sell. In a buyer’s market, those same two objections pose a problem and that house is going to “free-fall” in value. What he does know for sure is that buyers want to avoid homes near streams—since this kind of location limits options for adding an addition—and they prefer homes on level ground, not hills, that allow them access to the backyard without having to step onto a deck. Most of all, buyers don’t want to do renovations. They want turnkey homes and are turning up their noses at 1990’s style red brick houses. Ansley has painted the exterior brick and mortar of more than 30 houses white. “It’s like going to the plastic surgeon and getting all the wrinkles and a facelift done on the same day,” he said. “You come out looking younger and fresher.”

Full speed ahead

Unlike the mid-market, where agents are competitive with each other, the luxury market is small and agents need to work together often, Metcalf said. “As the price points get higher, your relationships with other agents are more important. It’s in your client’s best interest that other agents like you and want to work with you.”

Also, important is understanding clients’ real estate portfolios. Luxury clients in Atlanta may have homes in other markets, like Miami and Colorado, and invest in properties with their families, she said. It’s best to understand their portfolios to help them purchase properties out of town. With Atlanta becoming more of an international city, Itkin said there is a good likelihood a buyer will be coming from not only the U.S. but also from overseas. She affiliated herself with Coldwell Banker because of its high-end marketing platform to the global luxury market in 35 countries. “Having that sophisticated marketing is crucial in this price point,” she said.  

To perform in the luxury market, Itkin avises hiring top professional photographers videographers and to produce high-end marketing materials. “All those things come with a price tag,” she said. “Be prepared to invest if you want to be in and stay in the luxury market.”