Amid the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about how buying sight-unseen could be the future of luxury. With video tours and photo imaging easily available at such high levels, the idea that affluent buyers could soon be dropping $5 million on a house they saw online from the other side of the world had begun to take hold in some circles.
But Branden Williams, a Hilton & Hyland agent known for selling ultra-luxury homes to celebrities in Beverly Hills as part of his husband-and-wife team with Rayni Williams, believes that sight-unseen has been a way to adapt to pandemic-related circumstances — not something that luxury buyers will turn to forever.
“Videos are more important for property now, pictures are very important,” Williams told Inman. “But before somebody spends millions of dollars [on a property], they’re going to want to come see it themselves.”
Inman recently spoke with Williams about which of the trends that luxury real estate has adopted in the last few months will outlast the pandemic. Here’s what he had to say.
Inman News: What has your team been up to? How are you adapting during the pandemic?
Branden Williams: It’s definitely made things more difficult, and more annoying. I try to focus on the positives. I try not to get into the frenzy of the media, and instead just wake up and show up.
I know a lot of people during these times kind of checked out and felt that because the businesses shut down, they do not need to do anything. This is when I work harder — working on on my property and working on marketing, photos and communication with sellers. I’m letting them know what the market is doing, what sales are like and how much of a reduction they took, and really just trying to be informative and work that much harder. I have sanitizers in my car and in my pockets. I’m holding face masks all the time. Whenever there’s a showing, I just show up and do it.
People are realizing how much more important their homes are. People are realizing, “My home could be my everything.” How many Zoom calls have we all done now? I still have to show properties, people are doing video tours. Videos are more important for property now, pictures are very important. But at the end of the day, before somebody spends millions of dollars, they’re going to want to come see it themselves. I very rarely will get people wanting to buy sight-unseen.
We’ve actually heard reports of sight-unseen luxury purchases increasing. That hasn’t been your experience?
I’ve seen people put houses in escrow [sight-unseen]. I try not to do that because I don’t want to put something in escrow and then have someone go, “Oh, I didn’t realize x, y, z” and pull out of escrow.
I’ve had people that are like “I’m buying that house, this is my house” off of video or photographs. Then they’ll fly in during inspection or right as we’re about to sign the escrow. Those are rare circumstances that do happen but most of the time do not. I’m sure that happens more for condos or $2 million houses. But that’s not really our market.
LA has a serious lack of inventory at the moment. What kind of houses need to get built?
Family homes. I think it’s really coming back to the family. Even if it’s a modern home, [it should be] organic with lots of light, outdoor spaces, amazing kitchen spaces that are open to family rooms, great master suites. Maybe a guest house for an office or a private spot so that you could have an office and do meetings from there. A home just has to tick all the boxes for today’s lifestyle.
Does a $30M spec home really fulfill those needs?
Oh yeah. I think there are people that have big lifestyles and have lots of staff. There’s no other choice — they have to buy homes like that. You could tell a difference between $10, $20, $30, $40, $50 million in Los Angeles. There are big jumps especially if you want to be in a certain location.
What kind of luxury trends have you observed in your market this season?
I’m seeing that people really want sanctuaries. They want an environment that, if they’re going to be quarantined, they know they’re going to be happy there. A peaceful home that inspires peace and serenity and one that, if you get stuck there, you’re going to want to work from there.
That doesn’t mean it has to be a 20,000-square-foot house. It could be a 1,400-square-foot house with that indoor/outdoor feel. California’s very indoor/outdoor. You could take an old cottage in Laurel Canyon and blow out the kitchen, the rooms and windows so that it connects with nature. It’s only a 1,400 square foot house but now you’ve got a nice little yard, and you are connected with nature. I think people really just want to feel happy.
California has been going through waves of closing down and opening. Will that kind of uncertainty show on the market?
The biggest hit has been to travel. Beverly Hills and Los Angeles have a huge international market. Do I think it’s gonna affect the market? 100 percent. Some people say it’s 30 percent of our market. I would say for high-end, it’s 50 percent of our market.
It’s the same for East Coast buyers. People don’t want to fly on planes right now, airports are dead. But I also heard that home products are going through the roof and everybody’s remodeling their home. Everybody that lives locally is stepping up and saying “F–k, I should have bought that bigger house” or “Man, I should have bought a house with a pool.” It’s a give and take.