The Crux Of Deluxe

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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Not just any granite, but Italian granite. Not just a 24-hour front desk, but a concierge who can secure tickets to the Kennedy Center or replenish your supply of milk in a pinch. Not just a parking space, but an on-call limousine.

In a market where condominiums can sit empty for months, developers are still pushing ultra-expensive homes, betting that even in a slump, luxury will be snapped up.

But when it can sometimes seem that almost every building has adopted the "luxury" label, how can how you tell the difference between the real thing and poshness that's only average? Are granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances enough, or must the granite be imported and the appliances high-end?

"You know what they say about granite and stainless? That it's the new avocado," said Joseph Himali, principal broker at Best Address Real Estate.

Some developers and real estate agents sound miffed at the frequent use -- they say abuse -- of the luxury label.

"I think they are using 'luxury' for buildings that don't leak. If you have a dry building, you have luxury," said local developer Anthony Lanier. "Tell me one ad that says 'I am not luxury, I am pedestrian.' "

A few years back, developers touted luxury gourmet kitchens, but in the past year the luxury label has been put on entire units or buildings, said Tim Liu, publisher of dclofts.com, a Web site that tracks new condo projects. He said, "Stainless steel is stainless steel, but are they using the high-end Viking" appliances? Attention to detail -- solid wood doors, dimmer switches, quality windows -- makes a real difference, Liu said.

There is little agreement on what is takes to rise to the level of a luxury apartment, besides basics such as a pool or gym and a 24-hour front desk. Many real estate agents would snub a unit without a washer and dryer, parking space and storage unit. Yet some argue that the ultimate luxury is a blank canvas, an empty condo ready for a buyer or his decorator to design the final product.

Sometimes the lack of one amenity -- a washer and dryer, for example -- can be offset by an abundance of another.

The Prospect House in Arlington, considered among the region's luxury condominiums by several agents, doesn't have washers and dryers in the apartments.

But residents have a dramatic view of the Iwo Jima and Jefferson memorials and the Capitol from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living rooms of most units, said Patricia Darneille, who has lived in the building for more than 20 years. That makes up for a lot, she said. "Even yesterday on a gloomy rainy day, you look out the window and it's magical," said Darneille, an agent in Century 21 New Millennium's McLean office.

The market for the highest-end condos is limited. The median prices for condos in the District and Montgomery County last year were $350,000 and $285,000 respectively, according to the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. The average sales price in Northern Virginia was $341,840, according to the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. Units selling for more than $900,000, for example, accounted for less than 4 percent of the market in the District.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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