Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel once observed that there are people who have money -- and then there are people who are rich.
One would have to concede that Chanel, more than most people, might have been able to parse a distinction that would elude the rest of us.
But in this sometimes insanely wealthy country of ours, there can be many variations on the theme of "rich," and Laurie Moore-Moore has dedicated her career to scrutinizing them and explaining them to outsiders in the way Roger Tory Peterson created field guides for birdwatchers.
Moore-Moore is not a naturalist. She's a former real estate agent who teaches other real estate agents how to spot the markings and interpret the nesting behavior of rich people.
"There's a mystique and perhaps a little bit of intimidation associated with that market," said Moore-Moore, whose resume includes having trained more than 7,000 agents in the ways of the upper bracket for one major real estate company.
She went on to found and head the Institute for Luxury Home Marketing, a consulting and training firm based in Dallas, and has written "Rich Buyer, Rich Seller: A Real Estate Agents' Guide to Marketing Luxury Homes," published by her company.
Widely regarded as a diva of the upper bracket, Moore-Moore now conducts seminars around the country for agents who want to know just what "those people" want.
She tells them that those people, like the rest of us, expect service and competence. But agents don't pay her $500 a head and commit two days to her seminars in return for platitudes. The agents want to know how to find these clients and keep them happy.
That's because there's real money at stake for those who can make it in the major leagues. Moore-Moore ticks off the pros and cons of specializing in the luxury market. Among them:
* Upside: There's a higher income potential, as commission typically is based on a percentage of the sales price.
* Downside: Not every upper-tier listing sells (as price goes up, conversion rates tend to go down, she said); expensive homes usually take longer to move, while buyers in this group usually are in no hurry.
* Upside: Upper-tier clients tend to be more immune to economic downturns, which could become increasingly relevant if rising interest rates stall activity in more modest price ranges.
* Downside: There are fewer of these clients, period.
Another consideration is that the transactions can be more complicated. The all-cash sales can be simple, but sometimes high-end deals have extra players in them: trustees, private bankers, business managers or "screeners," who stand in for the actual clients in the early stages of the sale to save the boss time, to maintain confidentiality and to protect Mr. or Ms. Megabucks from overpaying.
"They're not buying shelter," said Tina Porterfield, an agent with Prudential Preferred Properties in Hinsdale, Ill. "Mainstream buyers are buying the roof over their heads, but upper-tier buyers are buying a lifestyle.
"They're looking for a lot of things. It could be a retreat, a place for some privacy because they might not have it in other aspects of their lives. Others are specifically looking for a place to entertain, where their lives require corporate entertaining as well as personal entertaining.
"And for some other people, it's just because they want it. They can afford it, and they want it," Porterfield said.
Moore-Moore said the recent phenomenon of the "I just want it" buyers has changed the marketplace.
"People talk about there being such a thing as 'old money' and 'new money,' but today, I think there's a third category, the 'ultra-consumer,' " Moore-Moore said. "They're people who generally earn good incomes, but they're stretching to buy as much as they can. The objective is maximizing lifestyle." The money goes out as fast as it comes in, for cars, for clothes, for travel and certainly for houses, she said.
"They could also be called the 'strained affluents,' and we love them in real estate, we think they're wonderful," because to some extent their demands are fueling the high-end market, Moore-Moore said.
Not that she counsels agents to help these fast spenders go right over the financial falls in a barrel, if that's what they seem determined to do. To the contrary, she tells agents: Check them out, because they may be living larger than they can realistically afford, and their deals might not go through.
She coaches agents on the touchy issue of explaining to buyers that they need a letter from their banker or broker that vouches for their ability to buy.
"There are always going to be a few who are offended by the question, but generally, you're dealing with savvy, business-oriented professionals," Moore-Moore said. "They understand when you say to them, 'I'm sure you will understand that my seller requires that a prospect who views his house must be pre-qualified.' "
Moore-Moore and the agents agree that, on another level, looks can be deceiving. The rich don't always "look rich," and they don't always shop for trophy houses.
"People choose to put their money in different places," Porterfield said. "Some people might have a house here and a house someplace else, and they might even have a place beyond that. If they took all their real estate holdings and put them in one bucket, it would be a very large bucket."
Or, there are the clients who have struck it rich -- in equity, anyway -- by selling a relatively ordinary home that happens to be in a highly desirable area, after owning it for many years.
"We call that 'Monopoly money,' " said Bill Coduto of Baird & Warner's Barrington, Ill., office. He said that such buyers find themselves suddenly able to buy the property they've always dreamed about.
Moore-Moore also recalls the wave of dot-com millionaires, when guys in flip-flops would wander into real estate offices, ready to pay cash for the best houses in town.
Old money, new money or ultra-consumer, "the ability to establish a rapport becomes very important," she said. "You have to do little things that show you understand their lifestyle."
Just what is the upper bracket, anyway? The answer, according to Moore-Moore, is: It depends.
It depends because not all housing markets are created equal. A mansion in some towns might be had for $500,000, or far less, whereas a "starter" home in some ultra-competitive California markets might clock in at $1 million -- that is, if the stressed-out buyer is lucky enough to nail it.
"There's tremendous market variance," Moore-Moore said. "I use the top 10 percent of sales (in a local multiple listing service) in the last 12 months" as the benchmark of "upper bracket."
"But the floor (for purposes of this discussion) is not less than $500,000."
Housing researchers at Harvard University last year took a long look at the characteristics of upper-tier properties and came out frustrated because two federal agencies came up with wildly divergent counts of how many are out there.
The 2000 Census calculated there were 313,759 single-family, owner-occupied homes valued at $1 million or more. But just one year later, the Survey of Consumer Finances collected by the Federal Reserve Board concluded there are 850,000 households that own primary residences worth at least that much, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.
The Harvard report speculated that the booming market in second and even third residences is tangling the data.
There are a number of ways to look at wealthy home buyers, Moore-Moore said. She urges agents to study how their clients' homes are decorated, to understand their motivations and what will appeal to them.
Six groups she has classified from long observation:
* The travelers. These frequent fliers' homes are filled with objects from the places they've been -- rugs from Santa Fe, African masks, Russian icons. They want a home that showcases their treasures. "Take them to lunch at the most exotic ethnic restaurant in town," Moore-Moore said.
* Flamboyants. They want their wealth to be recognized, their decor to be lavish. "Think gold bathroom fixtures," Moore-Moore said. They dress up and expect their agents to do likewise. Show them the most flamboyant properties and, um, prequalify them, she suggested. Lunch must be at someplace trendy.
* Romantics. Their homes are decorated with lots of romantic touches. Think Martha Stewart here, and show them the charming Tudor, the white-columned Colonial. Take them to a tearoom.
* Spartans. Minimal is more, in their dress and their homes. They'll go for white, black, lots of glass and open floor plans. No tearooms for this bunch. Go to a sophisticated bistro; its decor may be more important than the food.
* Outdoor lovers. Their homes will incorporate such natural materials as slate, stone, logs and exposed wood, and the view will matter a lot. Head for an upscale vegetarian restaurant or get gourmet carryout and eat in the park.
* Collectors. Their homes are museums for whatever they collect -- sculptures, cars, paintings. They have a lot of whatever it is, and they need wall space and big rooms for display. Have lunch in the museum dining room, Moore-Moore said.