The luxury real estate market is highly competitive, but agents who harness technology, the media and their own social networks for marketing can make fortunes.
It was about three months ago when a potential client asked if Luciane Serifovic could meet in Beverly Hills about a potential high-end real estate deal. Serifovic had recently launched her own brokerage, Luxian International Realty, catering to what she describes as high net worth individuals, so the meeting was right up her alley.
The only problem: The potential client gave Serifovic just two days notice to make the meeting.
Oh and also: Serifovic is based in New York City, not Southern California.
But that didn’t stop her.
“I literally dropped everything,” Serifovic recently told Inman. “I booked a flight and stayed at the [Hotel] Bel Air for two nights. All on my penny.”
The episode might be extreme, but it’s also fairly par for the course for real estate professionals working at the luxury end of the market. Luxury is a niche that requires more work, more resources and more panache than perhaps any other in real estate. But it’s also one that rewards its practitioners with multi-million dollar fortunes and fame rivaling that of some of their own clients. A number of the top agents operating in Los Angeles, after all, have themselves risen to become reality TV stars in their own right.
Everyone who spoke to Inman for this story agreed that breaking into the luxury market isn’t easy. Real estate is a tough game at any level, and luxury is tougher still.
But numerous sources said that it is actually possible to make it as a luxury agent, even for people who lack a blue-blooded pedigree or millions in startup capital. The key is to work hard and to work intelligently, using surgical precision to build both a brand and tell stories about listings. It’s marketing, in other words, but on a lot of really expensive steroids.
Different agents have different strategies for how to best do that, but what follows are some of the tips, tricks and advice that agents shared with Inman for marketing in the most exclusive slice of the real estate industry.
So what exactly is luxury real estate anyway?
If we’re going to talk about luxury, it’s useful to have a definition of what exactly it is.
Obviously, the biggest thing that sets luxury properties apart from other listings is the price, which varies considerably from place to place. Michael Nourmand, president of Nourmand and Associates Realtors in the Los Angeles area, told Inman that in his market he typically views a property as a “luxury” listing if it’s priced over $10 million.
On the other hand Allison Chiaramonte, a Warburg Realty agent in New York City, said that in her area “luxury” typically starts at $5 million and goes up from there. Different agents across the country gave different figures for their markets, but the sky is really the limit; Gary Gold, executive vice president at Hilton & Hyland in Beverly Hills, recalled selling the Playboy mansion for $100 million. And Gold currently has the listing for Chartwell Estate, a mansion priced at nearly $200 million.
Meghan Barry, president of broker network Who’s Who in Luxury Real Estate, agreed that there is tremendous variation from market to market in what counts as luxury, but said that in general the term applies to the top 5 to 10 percent of properties. There are exceptions but usually you know luxury when you see it.
“Luxury is really the most desirable places where people want to live,” Barry said. “There’s always a place where people want to live. Whether that’s Park Avenue in New York City or Bel Air in the greater Los Angeles area.”
But money is also only the tip of the iceberg. Lisa Chajet, also a Warburg agent in New York City, told Inman that in addition to high asking prices, luxury properties in her market tend to have a host of amenities such as gyms and pools and roof decks and on-site service personnel.
And even if the price tag is high, the apartment needs to be move-in ready to attract luxury buyers.
“If an apartment needs work, I’d have a very hard time marketing it as luxury,” Chajet said.
Nourmand also pointed out that location, as the old adage goes, is everything.
“It’s Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Holmby Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades,” he said of his market. “That’s where the concentration of luxury properties are going to be.”
How do you market yourself as someone who can work with these kinds of properties?
Barry told Inman recently that she knows an agent who for decades sold mid-tier homes. The agent was good at what she did, but also felt stuck in that lower price range despite wanting to work with high-end listings.
Eventually, however, the agent figured out a strategy to help her climb higher: Shape the narrative.
“She didn’t post about the $300,000 sale,” Barry explained of the agent’s online activity. “She started posting about the $600,000 sale. Little by little, people gained this perception that that was what she was doing.”
The tactic worked and gradually the agent began working with higher-end listings, Barry said.
The episode highlights the idea that successful luxury marketing begins long before an agent actually scores a luxury listing. Instead, it starts with personal branding, as the agent figures out how to win listings in the first place and prove to potential clients that she or he has the ability to close deals.
Other methods for building a personal brand include developing some kind of calling card that other industry pros recognize. Barry, for example, has seen agents host catered lunches at their broker open houses to the point that good food becomes a part of their personal brand.
Aaron Kirman took a different approach in his early days, opting to structure his personal brand around architectural homes. It took time, but he gradually managed to earn a reputation as someone who handled “cool” houses and today has represented a number of famous properties, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House.
“I built my name and my brand around that and those houses,” he explained, adding that eventually the connections he made through those listings helped him move up to mega-mansions worth many millions of dollars.
On the other hand, Serifovic — who prior to founding her own brokerage worked at Douglas Elliman and Town Residential — is willing to travel.
“I’ve flown to Saint-Tropez to meet with clients,” she said, referring to the glitzy corner of the French Riviera. “It’s really expensive, but that’s how you can penetrate into that space.”
The list of strategies could go on, but the point is that, as Kirman put it, agents need a “niche” that sets them apart from anyone else. And they need to make sure everyone else knows what that niche is.
“I think it’s really important to talk about yourself,” Barry added. “To talk about the things that you do and the concierge service that you offer.”
Luxury branding can be a particular challenge for newer agents who may lack the resume of more experienced partners, or for those who might have mostly worked at lower price points. But Gold suggested people in that situation can team up with more veteran agents.
“If you’re moving up from what you’re normally used to doing,” he explained, “I would co-list it with somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
Gold also suggested newer agents can frame prior experience, even in other industries, as an asset.
“If you’re brand new in the business and you haven’t sold an expensive home you can’t say I’ve got the experience,” Gold pointed out. “But what you could say is, ‘I come from the fashion industry.’ Or, ‘I was the head of publicity for a record company.'”
So what do you do when you actually get the listing?
Devising a press strategy
Luxury properties almost universally require more than posting a few pictures on the local multiple listing service (MLS), and the agents who spoke to Inman said that one of the first things they often do when it comes to marketing is try to generate media attention.
“We always start with great press strategies,” Kirman explained. “We think that that tells a great story.”
Audie Chamberlain, founder of public relations firm Lion & Orb, specializes in this kind of marketing strategy and recalled recently working on the sale of a home that once belonged to weight loss guru Jenny Craig. In that case, the press strategy involved giving media outlets advance notice before the listing actually hit the market, which generates early buzz for the property.
In another case, Chamberlain was called upon to help with the sale of a home that had belonged to Neil Young. It was a challenging situation because Young was recently divorced, raising concerns among his handlers that his personal life could overshadow the listing. But Chamberlain devised a media strategy that “made it all about the property” rather than the divorce. And it worked.
“There were over 30 media pickups, it went everywhere around the world and no one ever mentioned the divorce once,” Chamberlain recalled.
The key to this kind of marketing, according to Chamberlain, is telling a compelling story about a property that will appeal to both reporters and their readers. And while he has worked on some truly jaw-dropping properties, he also said it’s a “myth” that this strategy only works on celebrity-connected homes worth many tens of millions of dollars.
In fact, a good press strategy is beneficial even on much more modest homes without a fancy pedigree.
“We find angles like a local city councilman or local university professor,” Chamberlain said. “It might be that they used reclaimed wood from a local hardware store that’s going out of business. We had a property in Pasadena that was $2 million and we got it on the cover of Pasadena Magazine. There’s a lot of emotion that agents and brokers don’t even know that they’re sitting on.”
The other key to a successful press strategy is understanding of how the media works.
“It’s knowing the Wall Street journal and having that relationship,” he explained. “We know the criteria they’re looking for. We know when it has to be filed. We know if we can get it in the Financial Times verses Bloomberg.”
Hiring a publicist
Last fall, Nourmand & Associates scored a listing for a swanky penthouse condo overlooking the beach in Santa Monica, California. The unit is, for lack of a better word, incredible. It sprawls over 8,000 square feet, has six bedrooms and eight bathrooms, a huge skylight over the living room, and wrap-around balconies. Nourmand called it one of his favorite listings and Rochelle Maize, one of his agents, represented the unit, which was listed at $15 million.
A property like the Santa Monica condo obviously requires agents to pull out all the stops. But Nourmand said that in this specific case, a dedicated public relations firm was actually brought in to help get the listing on the radar of potential buyers.
“You’re hiring a PR company where their job is to generate press for a specific property and then to plan an event around it,” he explained.
The event took place last October and included a DJ, a bar and tubs filled with plastic balls, among many other things. Nourmand described the overall theme as “beachy.”
Nourmand said the party also had a carefully curated guest list. Invitees included real estate agents working in the same market who might have buyers, as well as Instagram influencers — who subsequently blasted photos of the property out to multitudes of followers.
Collectively, four of the Instagram influencers who ultimately attended the event have more than 1.5 million followers. And the images they shared ranged from photos that could pass as listing shots to pictures that look like something out of a fashion magazine.
Victor Lund, founding partner at consulting firm WAV Group, said that years ago, hiring a public relations firm to hype a listing was rare outside of big flashy markets like Los Angeles. However, in recent years companies like Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com began publishing online content that “tells stories” about properties. And that pushed the envelope in terms of how agents and consumers understand real estate content.
“People love to read that stuff and you get tons of traffic to your website,” he observed.
As online real estate companies began packaging content in more compelling ways, agents realized that they could do the same thing. That has since fueled more wide-spread interest in creative marketing strategies, as well as in the publicists who specialize in those strategies.
It’s hard to specifically quantify the results of some publicist-oriented marketing, but multiple industry professionals told Inman that these more holistic and non-traditional marketing strategies represent a growing trend right now, particularly for luxury properties.
“It really went mainstream a few years back,” Chamberlain said.
“It’s probably the biggest trend over the last year or so,” Nourmand added.
And it apparently works; that Santa Monica penthouse Nourmand & Associates was selling went on the market on Oct. 15, 2018 and closed on Nov. 21 for $14.5 million.
“I’m not entirely convinced that the whole PR campaign is what sells the property, but you can’t argue with the fact that it does get attention,” Nourmand concluded. “I think it is helpful.”
Making a listing pop
Nourmand said that he has also seen a trend recently in which really expensive homes are named. Perhaps the most famous example of this lately is “The One,” a $500 million L.A. megamansion that has generated loads of media attention and lots of glossy publicity materials.
Nearby Beverly Hills is home to the “Opus,” described in the listing materials as the “most spectacular modern house ever constructed” in its area. The Opus also garnered attention (and some derision) for its extremely racy marketing videos, which featured a number of scantily clad women in masks, lingerie and gold paint.
Neither the Opus nor The One have sold yet, but if nothing else they offer noteworthy marketing case studies. The Opus’ Eyes Wide Shut-esque “red band trailer,” after all, has been viewed more than a million times on Vimeo.
The fact that they haven’t sold also hints at another key aspect of luxury marketing: price.
“There has to be something unique about your property and a combination of having the right agent to explain the selling points,” Nourmand said. “But I think at the end of the day, you have to be priced right.”
What role does technology play in luxury marketing?
More immersive visualizations
Lund described effective visualizations for luxury properties as “table stakes,” which is to say, agents absolutely have to get the imagery right.
The role and importance of good photos is widely understood, and as properties like the Opus show, luxury real estate videography is getting more and more… ahem, creative.
But in recent years new options have emerged to give potential buyers a much deeper visual experience. Lund pointed for example to companies like Matterport, which offer interactive tours of homes akin to Google Street View.
He said that this 3D technology, combined with virtual home staging services, can potentially save sellers and their agents time and money, while at the same time helping far-flung buyers better imagine themselves living in a property.
These kinds of technologies are already being deployed for listings at many price points, but Lund suggested that they can be particularly useful for luxury properties because they can also potentially protect the privacy of wealthy clients.
Lund cited the example of retired tennis greats Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf selling their home in California’s Marin County over a decade ago for $20 million. At the time, the famous couple was forced to move valuable possessions in and out of the home to in order to limit public knowledge of their assets.
Today, however, that wouldn’t be necessary in part because visualization technologies let sellers add or remove items from an image digitally during the marketing phase.
Better use of data
Lund also said that over the last decade, luxury agents have increasingly begun to harness data to build networks of potential clients. One way they do that is through companies like Wealth-X, which track ultra high net worth people who may operate through LLCs that shield them from normal lead generating tools.
“I have a lot of friends who are super wealthy and they don’t even have credit,” Lund added. “Their name isn’t on the grid.”
Wealth-X was founded in 2010 and is essentially a database of records on very wealthy people. Matthew King, Wealth-X’s manager of business development, told Inman that the company has traditionally focused on people with a net worth of $30 million or more, of which there are about 160,000 in the world. More recently, Wealth-X has begun tracking people with a net worth between $5 million and $30 million.
“We have about a million people in our database today,” King said, adding that the archive is continuing to grow.
Wealth-X compiles a dossier on those wealthy people using public records, and subscribers can use those dossiers for lead generation or qualification. The service isn’t cheap — pricing varies but generally starts around $22,000 per year — but it can provide a useful, data-oriented pathway to an exclusive group of people who are otherwise hard to track down.
How do you market properties that don't even hit the MLS?
A number of agents who spoke to Inman said that there are cases when extremely exclusive properties don’t ever hit the open market. This can happen for a variety of reasons — maybe a famous person owns the house and has privacy concerns — but it raises a unique challenge for agents tasked with marketing the listing.
Gold, of Hilton & Hyland, has extensive experience with this kind of sale.
“I’ve sold a bunch of houses the never hit the market,” Gold added.
Agents can market such properties exclusively within their own offices, a practice known as creating an “office exclusive.” Gold said this is a common and effective strategy at his firm. He also said agents in this type of situation can (at least for the time being) discreetly call other luxury agents in the market who might know potential buyers.
Either way, though, an agent’s personal network is the key to selling homes that don’t hit the MLS.
Lund also said there are tactical choices agents can make when selling off-market properties. Multiple listing services sometimes include an option that lets agents enter a property, but stipulate that it doesn’t show up anywhere online, for example. That option means that other agents, possibly with buyers, will be able to see the property, but “it doesn’t go out anywhere else,” Lund said.
What else can agents do to market luxury properties?
There are tips, tricks and tactics when it comes to selling luxury real estate, but the professionals who spoke to Inman said that good old fashion networking is still the most important strategy.
“In the end, it’s really about who you know, which is the case with all real estate,” Lund said.
Case in point: Lund used to live in New York and belonged to a Buffalo country club. Everybody in the area was a member, and most sellers found their buyers through their in-real-life social networks.
“They may just mention to a friend that they’re selling and then boom,” he said. “It’s brother to brother, neighbor to neighbor.”
Barry made a similar point, saying that agents tend to score listings, find buyers and generally sell houses more easily when they are embedded in their community.
“With luxury brokers,” she said, “so frequently they’re living in the markets that they sell in.”