So just how do you sell a steel villa in St. Michaels that costs almost $4 million? Or a mansion on the ninth hole at Avenel listed for $6.5 mill? And, can the folks who are selling the Kennedy complex at Hickory Hill really expect it to move now that the price tag's down from $25 million to $20 million?
Local real estate agents in general continue to wave off talk of dark clouds on the horizon, bubbles and market "froth." There's a bit of a summer slowdown, yes, they say, but it's mainly now from the froth at beckoning beaches.
The climate, though, has always been a bit harsher at the higher elevations, where mega-mansions can run into the mega-millions. Though luxury-home agents here and nationally say their sales are doing quite well, thank you, they note that it always takes more time, ingenuity, targeted marketing and, of course, advertising bucks to land the big fish.
"You never know, sometimes a multimillion-dollar property will sell in a day. And sometimes it is a little tougher to pull off and it takes a little longer. But if you have the right product and it's priced fairly, it will always move," said Cliff Meredith of Meredith Real Estate Co. Inc. on the Eastern Shore. He is the listing agent for Benoni Point, the $3.85 million steel statement by architect and artist Arthur Cotton Moore and his wife, Patricia. The nine-acre waterfront property has been on the market since Thanksgiving.
"It always takes more time for houses that cost $2.5 million and more to sell," said W. Ted Gossett, the Sotheby's Washington Fine Properties agent who is representing the Kennedy family on Hickory Hill in McLean. "If the property is over $5 million or over $10 million, many times it will take more than a year to sell. But that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the house. It just takes the right person."
More and more, Gossett said, the right person is coming from Europe, where currencies are strong against the dollar and the appeal of real estate beats any of the stock markets. And, he said, that person is seeing the house here in international publications published by real estate companies, on real estate company Web sites or in other specialty magazines.
"One of the most expensive houses that sold in Montgomery County went to a referral from our Greenwich, Conn., office, a buyer from Europe," Gossett said.
"The high end has always been its own market," said Anita Tauber of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Bethesda. "There are obviously many more buyers for a $500,000 house or even a $700,000 house than for a $2 million property."
She said, "Generally speaking, I find that the best thing I can do is to try to expose the property to as many buyers as are out there." That, she said, usually means advertising in the major papers and in Long & Foster's glossy luxury-home publication. It also increasingly means Internet virtual tours and strong professionally photographed brochures and videos.
"For a $3 million-plus property, the average amount spent is about $10,000," Tauber said.
For one of her newest luxe listings, a house to be built on a 112-acre farm in the Poolesville-Seneca area, Tauber is trying a new tack. She and real estate partner, Cindy Souza, have placed an ad in Practical Horseman magazine, a publication aimed at the upper crust. "It reaches 2,500 local people who are interested in horse farms," Tauber said.
Luckily for the luxury agents and their clients, there's a whole industry that's been created to help the super-rich sell their houses. The industry tilts to the most expensive markets in New York, California and Hawaii, where prices of $15 million to $50 million are more routine. But Washington is getting in the game more often, local agents say, even though houses selling for more than $1 million remain a tiny piece of the market here.
At 35 years old, Unique Homes magazine is one of the grandfathers in the field. It has been joined by other luxury-home publications, both national and global, and by Internet sites such as wwww.luxuryrealestate.com, which charges $3,000 a year for membership and says it gets 35 million visits monthly. All of these publications and Web sites are largely showcases for ads featuring individual homes.
The nation's big luxury real estate firms -- Sotheby's, Christie's, Coldwell Banker and others -- all publish glossy luxury home guides. Major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Washington Post, have sections with pricey display ads just for the big houses.
There are also professional associations that train and accredit high-end agents, offering designations the agents can use to find clients and sell customers.
For example, the Institute for Luxury Home Marketing in Dallas says it has trained more than 10,000 agents since 1994, including a bunch from the Washington area. Membership nationally has grown from 1,900 a year ago to 3,500, marketing coordinator Karen Ptacek said.
Those who complete a two-day institute course that costs $495 or who have sold at least four luxury properties within two years can advertise themselves as a "Certified Luxury Home Marketing Specialist." Membership costs $150 a year.
The institute helped Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage develop its own similar program, Previews International. The regional office of that program says its sales in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia market jumped 60 percent in 2004, putting them in the top 20 Coldwell Banker markets. Maryland ranked 12th in the nation for Previews sales, the District 15th and Virginia 17th, the company said in May.
The 25th most expensive property last year in all of Coldwell Banker's Previews listings came from a farm in Earleville, Md., in Cecil County, which went for $13.6 million. And Georgetown agent Mark McFadden was the program's No. 5 agent nationally, the only one in the top 10 outside California.
The Previews program defines luxury homes as those listing for more than $700,000. The institute defines luxury as either the top 10 percent of home listings by price, or those homes listed above $500,000, depending on which best suits the local market.
The Previews program fronts advertising costs for participating agents in return for a cut of the commission, said Coldwell Banker agent Randy Staats of Easton. On a $17.5 million listing Staats has for a 700-acre farm in Earleville, he said the advertising costs so far have run "about $38,000 to $40,000." The property has been on the market since late 2004.
With a mile of waterfront on the Sassafras River, and about the same on an inlet to the Chesapeake Bay, the property has drawn lots of interest from big builders and private parties, Staats said. But because of land-use restrictions and lack of public water and sewer, he said, the large builders probably won't bite.
He has shown the property about 30 times, with about half of prospective buyers coming from outside the Washington area. One looker arrived by private plane from Florida, one came by helicopter and another arrived with "the fanciest Land Rover I've ever seen," Staats said. One of two shoppers from Germany brought a "whole entourage with him."
High-end agents say they take their cues on how to market listings from the clients.
"The marketing cost really varies by what the sellers are willing to pay and what their expectations are," the marketing institute's Ptacek said. Some sellers have "the minimalist approach, where they believe the property sells itself. Other times the seller has the expectation that they want to be in certain expensive publications. . . . In that case, the agent says, 'If that's where you want to be, just send me the check, and I'll do that.' "
Some sellers are just more hands-on than others.
When architect Arthur Cotton Moore and his wife decided last fall to sell their steel-tiered Talbot County home, Patricia Moore created her own Web site.
She paid $129 monthly to link the site to "something like 3,000 search engines around the world" and then hired local company Meredith Real Estate for those who come calling on the property, named Benoni Point. Meredith has an office in Oxford, across the Tred Avon River from Benoni Point. The firm also shows expensive waterfront properties by boat; it has a tiny office on the Patriot, a tour and charter operation based in St. Michaels.
No one has yet offered the $3.85 million the Moores are asking. But Moore said she's "not worried."
It takes time to sell expensive properties, especially one as unconventional as hers, she said. "We know that we're looking for a particular person. We're looking for the one person who doesn't need -- for whatever psychological reason -- a real or a fake Colonial house," Moore said. "You know, everything in Washington is a Colonial."
And, she said, she's pleased that her Web site has already gotten "about 27,000 hits."
Jan M. Evans, an agent with W.C. & A.N. Miller Realtors in Spring Valley, said her goal is to be creative and to reach out to as many potential buyers as she can as cleverly as she can.
"It does take longer to sell luxury homes," she said. "You know how the saying goes, that there's less oxygen up there."
For the $6.5 million property overlooking the ninth and 10th fairways at Avenel, a home built by Anthony M. Natelli, who developed the posh residential community in Potomac, Evans has gone all out.
The open house for agents in May was lavish, with a pianist playing classical music and a menu that included shrimp cocktail, beef tenderloin and chicken satay served by waiters. More than 100 agents showed up, as word circulated about the spread.
Evans has also placed ads in the big glossies and newspapers, prepared a Web posting with professional pictures and developed a special brochure. A novel touch was the full-page ad she bought in the Booz-Allen Classic golf tournament's official magazine last month. Because the tournament will move back from Congressional Country Club to Avenel next year, she wrote, in all-capital letters in the ad: "Next year enjoy the Booz Allen Classic from your own back yard."
Full-page color ads in the golf magazine cost about $2,500. A full-page ad that has run several times in the Washingtonian magazine cost about $7,500.
The results have been good, said Evans, though the summer holidays mean business has slowed. "We've had showings every single week," she said. Several visitors were from Europe.
Her reasoning for such a sweeping approach was that the property deserved it. "I haven't seen anybody do anything like this recently. The feeling was that a property like that needs to be marketed a certain way."
Others agents say their clients are worried about security or their private art collections and possessions, so they shy away from open houses for brokers and are nervous about other viewings.
Sheila Leifer, a Long and Foster agent in Chevy Chase, handled a luxury listing in Kalorama for an art patron whose collection was quite significant.
To reassure that kind of client, "you have to commit yourself to a lot of vigilance," said Leifer. "We had an agent on every floor."
In such cases, she said, "an agent isn't a caterer, you're a curator."
Sotheby's agent Goss, who is handling the 13-bedroom, 12-bath Hickory Hill property, and his principal broker, Dana Landry, said their approach is generally understated.
"We still believe that the broadest exposure is important for any seller, and a lot of our buyers are coming from outside of our area," Landry said. But the company markets "mainly through the Internet and with our national affiliations, Who's Who in Luxury Marketing [a network of luxury agents connected with luxuryrealestate.com] and Sotheby's."
Though the reduction in the price this January might be seen as a giant negative, Landry said, "We're very confident that it will sell. It's six acres, after all. It's just a matter of when."
The original $25 million listing price would have set a record for McLean, Landry said -- and $20 million would, too.