Cover story: How agents break into the luxury market

by Joe Ward

To many agents and developers, working in the luxury 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 high 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.

Despite fits and starts through the years, the luxury market in Miami is still strong, 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 market that successful agents must keep a hand on.

“Homeowners today are very savvy,” says Wendy Marks Pine, director of sales for Related Realty. “This might be a second, third or fourth home for them. They have the experience. They know what they want. You really have to find out what a customer is looking for.”

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. There are, of course, 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.

Marks Pine began in the real estate business in 1997. Like most agents, she worked her way up to the luxury market.

“When I first started in real estate, I was an associate like anybody where you’re driving people around from condo to condo, trying to find the perfect fit for them,” she says.

She then moved to Related in 2002, where she worked to help sell a number of the company’s luxury developments, including the nearly completed Auberge Beach In Fort Lauderdale and Hyde Beach House Hollywood. Marks Pine quickly learned the nuances of the market, and how to successfully work with the buyers you find at that price point.

“It’s a very different clientele and it’s a different kind of ownership,” she says. “The goal is to find a perfect home that they can make their own. When you’re dealing with investors, it’s more of a numbers game. What can they rent it out for? Who can use it? It’s two very different kind of buyers and two different kinds of sales.”

For many seeking to buy luxury condos in Miami, it is not their first time buying property. So, clients know the ins and outs of the process and they know what they’re looking for in a home. It’s then the agents job to know exactly what they want and where to find it.

“I think listening is key,” she says. “It’s not real different from real estate as a whole. But when you’re dealing with clientele at this caliber, they know what they want. Theres no swaying that. You have to be patient, listen carefully. Agents shouldn’t sell them what their favorite residence is. They should identify the buyer’s needs.”

Not only do agents need to find the products that today’s luxury buyers want, but developers need to bring to the market units that are enticing to today’s ever-changing buyers.

Read more from our Luxury issue

Developing for luxury

In a competitive, highly developed market, one of the biggest challenges to building housing is obvious: location, location, location.

“Locations are very difficult to find,” says Jim Cohen, senior vice president of development and sales at Fortune International Group. “Any of these desirable areas are extremely difficult [to find space]. Once we find it, the next thing is to come up with the concept. Who’s our market? What’s the market calling for?”

Developer W. Allen Morris, CEO of the Allen Morris Company, says the biggest hurdle to a successful development is determining a market and finding a concept.

“There is a challenge in anticipating what people are going to need and want in the future that nobody has seen yet,” Morris says.

To determine what is needed in the market, Morris says his team looks at buyer trends and demographic changes. They also think about what comforts they would want in a condo building before they left their homes for good.

Today’s luxury buyer in Miami is still the international investor, but more common now is the former New Yorker who is seeking tax relief for their family. And so there needs to be a product to entice these buyers out of their Connecticut mansions, Allen says. That’s why new products today are so amenity-rich.

“I think of it as being empathetic to what most people would enjoy and would appreciate having available to them in the place they live,” Morris says. “We’re not selling concrete and glass. We’re selling a lifestyle.”

For Cohen, nailing down a targeted demographic for a new building project is vital to its future success. Because of the cost of such developments, building must happen as quickly as possible, and once it begins, there’s little time to ponder intended clientele, he says.

“First you’ve got to identify, who’s your target, who’s your market?” he says. “From then, you design it from the inside out a lot of times. What happens, just because you have a Miami Beach property, is it a local market? Are you targeting the South American market?”

Marketing for success

A successful luxury development needs top-notch planning and oversight. But with stakes this high, it also needs a competent sales team. Marketing, too, plays a major role in such success.

Cohen knows the role agents play in ensuring a project’s success. He says Fortune brings its broker partners in on the ground floor, explaining the project and asking them who they think it will attract and what kind of price it can command.

“One thing I’ve always put a tremendous value on is our broker relations,” he says. “We’re open to their input because at the end of the day they’re on the front lines. They’re gonna make our success. So we get them involved early on because when we go to market we have their support.”

To ensure successful sales, Cohen says his team works diligently to make sure agents know as much about the project as possible at every step.

“A lot of it requires educating the sales team,” he says. “They have to know, this is not your father’s apartment building. You haven’t seen this before.”

A lot of South Florida’s attraction is its social scene, and agents and developers make sure to incorporate the city’s vibrant offerings into their marketing and sales pitches. Marks Pine says that for one of her latest projects, she has been putting on events that would entice Miami residents whether there was a sales pitch involved or not.

“We try to express our creativity, rather than do the same thing over and over again,” she says. “From wine tastings to trunk shows to book signings, wellness events. We invite clients or prospects on a regular basis, people who’ve already purchased, we invite them to bring friends. We found that people who buy here like to surround themselves with friends.”

One the development side, Cohen says marketing a property requires a serious effort. Depending on the product, Cohen says Fortune will employ its offices throughout the world to get the word out to International buyers.

“It’s general awareness of the market or brand we’re selling,” he says. “But it goes back to brokers. That’s the best source for today’s outreach and marketing. The general print, the email blasts that everyone does, that’s just for general awareness. It’s really about word of mouth for different properties.”

Though Miami has a well-supplied and competitive luxury market, smart developments and crafty agents still see regular success. For both developers and agents, knowing the nuances of the ever-changing luxury market is key.

“It’s all about client lifestyles today,” Marks Pine says. “Patience is probably key. It’s not likes sales happen overnight.”

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