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The Deal is in the Details

When buying a high-end luxury home, find a Realtor who knows the nuances

Not long ago, I was showing clients a premium townhome property-the shell alone was selling for $2 million-when I heard the developer´s broker say something that I knew wasn´t right.

She told the clients they would need only a quarter of a million dollars to finish the raw space. "Wait a second," I said, "the kitchen alone, depending on your tastes, might run $75,000 to $125,000." I knew the clients would not be satisfied with low-end appliances and finishes, and neither would the market when it came time for resale.

Understanding pricing and finishes is essential in the rarefied realm of high-end luxury properties, where the number of details involved-and their importance for buyers-increases as the sales price rises. To ensure your best deal, find an experienced Realtor who knows the specialized components of upper tier real estate. Your real estate agent should gather and present to you as much information as possible to protect you in the transaction.

Start With the Client´s Needs

So I can understand what my clients are looking for, my first step is to work with them to develop their needs analysis -- cover everything from the minimum square footage for their home to whether or not they want a private rooftop garden. In addition, the Realtor should find out what special amenities a buyer desires in a luxury building based on the person´s lifestyle and personality. Using the results of the needs analysis, I can locate appropriate properties in the locations the client prefers.

The Cachet of Luxury Brands

Luxury design brands have become a driving trend for high-end properties. Buyers appreciate the name recognition of Ritz Carlton, Trump or Mandarin Oriental ? and of well-known architects like Santiago Calatrava, Lucien Lagrange and Helmut Jahn. These prestige names also make properties more attractive for resale.

The Flow of Floor Plans

The desirability of cachet brands has a flipside to keep in mind: just because a building is designed by a big name architect doesn´t mean its floor plans are livable. The floor plan must make sense for your family and your daily needs. Be careful about how the property lays out, the flow of the design. Imagine yourself moving through the rooms. If something feels awkward, it will become an issue later.

Floor plans provided to potential buyers typically don´t give true room sizes. Because the measurements are taken from within the walls, dimensions can be off by as much as six inches on either side.

Start with Building Amenities

Our Chicago skyline is graced with many examples of work by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe. The famous German master´s adage, "God is in the details" reflects the thoroughness you should expect from your Realtor when buying a luxury home.

Among the most important details to consider are the amenities that you desire in a luxury building, based on your lifestyle and personality. Take concierge service, for example. What does it really entail and what is the level of service? Is it available around the clock? Your agent should look into these details for you so you know how a concierge will meet your needs for heavy travel, business meetings, or frequent entertaining.

Amenities typical of luxury buildings include swimming pools, dog runs, indoor valet parking, and business and conference centers. Following the recent trend of condominium-hotel units being sold in the upper market, amenities that were traditionally found only in luxury hotels are now appearing in residential buildings-housekeeping services, spa centers, meal services and catering (often by well-known caterers). Taking cues from posh New York hotels, some high-end buildings in Chicago are now offering billiard rooms, wine storage facilities-even spa services for pets.

One of the first questions your Realtor should ask is how many homes you prefer per floor. Some buyers want only one or two. Ceiling heights are also important; new-construction units should have at least nine-foot ceilings, and preferably ten or eleven.

The Finer Points of Finishes

Even at the upper reaches of the market, some developers try to save money by installing the same finishes in every unit. You have to be aware that developers will sometimes try to impose that luxury feeling without allowing you to customize your finishes.

I always accompany my clients when they make finish selections rather than leave them to work solely with the developer selections staff. Particularly on the upper end of the market, your agent should have the background to make suggestions about finishes, even when you´re working with an interior designer. An astute Realtor understands the impact of finish selections on resale value.

Recent trends in high-end finishes include darker stains in hardwood flooring; soaking tubs with separate shower enclosures, and natural stone-marble, slate or limestone-in kitchens and baths.

As the architect Louis Sullivan famously said, "Form follows function," and his insight should also guide your finish selections. For example, white-marble countertops look great, but they stain from use. Dark countertops may be a better choice for a well used kitchen. The best finishes are both aesthetically pleasing and practical.

The cachet of luxury brands-and their role in a home´s resale value-also applies in the kitchen and bath. Look for name brands like Sub-Zero refrigerators, Miele dishwashers, Waterworks detail, and Wolf or Viking cook tops and ovens. Premium cabinetry names include Poliform, Christopher Peacock, Poggenpohl, and Snaidero.

Be Savvy with Contracts

In the sales contract, many developers leave themselves an opening to change or substitute finish selections. You need to clarify what these substituted selections will be and the cost of any upgrades. The contract should state that your finishes will be equal in value, or the same as, those shown in the model.

Particularly with new construction, it´s important to scrutinize both the contract and the property report for transaction subtleties. There might be restrictions on selling the first year, or limits on the number of units that may be rented in the building. Find a real estate attorney who knows how to discern the details of the new construction contract and property report.

Your Realtor Works for You

With prices for high-end luxury properties in Chicago approaching $1,000 to $1,200 per square foot, you need a real estate agent who understands your lifestyle and will represent you by asking the developer´s realtor the hardnosed questions.

Sheldon Salnick is a Realtor with Chicago´s Rubloff Residential Properties, and a 17-year real estate veteran. An art collector with a background in advertising and marketing for Fortune 1000 companies, he has led sales of more than $200 million in properties for top Chicago developers. Direct line: 312.264.5853. E-mail: ssalnick@rubloff.com