Investing in Luxury Real Estate

Luxury real estate prices are hot and keep soaring. The top luxury real estate sale in New York was for a whopping $91,541,000 million according to the latest report from Christie's International Real Estate. 

“Many high-net-worth individuals are buying homes as a hard asset,” says Jay Belson, the CEO of Jay Belson Luxury Real Estate, a full-service luxury real estate investing firm based in Beverly Hills, Calif. And with the wealth of the world’s richest people growing, the potential market for luxury properties is larger than ever. If you want to get in on the action and can afford the steep price tag, here are several options for doing so.

Defining “Luxury Property”

It’s important to understand what features characterize a luxury property before you invest because a high price tag alone won’t put a property in this category. “It has to be unique and exclusive, in a good way in a desirable way. People who are wealthy will pay a premium for something that’s perceived to be superior,” says Randy Char, senior vice president of operations at One Queensridge Place, a luxury high-rise located just minutes from the Las Vegas strip. 

High-end buyers want access to luxury activities like high-end shopping, dining, and the arts, as well as proximity to other luxury homes. A trophy address, like Park Avenue in New York City, adds value. Having a storied history doesn’t hurt, either. Many luxury buyers seek the natural beauty of a waterfront location, or at least views of a river, ocean or lake. Others want countryside or mountainside views. 

High-end buyers want many of the same features that all buyers want, but on a grander scale. They want privacy and security, sometimes to the point of seclusion. They want beauty inside and out and can afford custom architecture, custom design, over-the-top attention to detail and opulent finishes. They also want amenities on top of amenities: a chef’s kitchen, luxury pool, expansive master suite and outdoor living space, not to mention home automation, motion detectors, car lifts and temperature-controlled wine cellars. They also want space. In Malibu, Calif., for example, the average luxury home has more than 4,000 square feet (and a $6 million-plus price tag). 

When choosing a luxury home, it’s extremely important to think about the aspects of the property that can’t be changed, says Mark Fitzpatrick, CEO of RUHM Destination Marketing, a destination marketing service for luxury properties worldwide. “You can't change the path of the sun, the location of the ocean or the fact that there is a flight path for large airplanes over your head. Ugly wallpaper in the bathroom is far less important than the weather,” he says. 

How Much Do You Need?

In markets where prices are generally lower, you could need as little as half a million to own a piece of luxury real estate. But you’ll need at least $1 million to buy a luxury property in most major cities, and the entry price point goes up where the cost of living is high. It’s $3 million in San Francisco, $5 million in Los Angeles and New York, and $7 million in London, according to Christie’s

Luxury buyers often pay cash, but a jumbo mortgage is another option. If you’re financing the purchase, you’ll need a large down payment, excellent credit, proof of income and assets and large cash reserves.

How to Do It: Your Options for Investing in Luxury Real Estate

If you want to invest in luxury real estate, there are several paths you can take.

Flip a Mansion

Remodeling existing luxury properties and reselling them for a profit is an excellent investment, says Belson of Jay Belson Luxury Real Estate. “It's faster than building from ground up, but is limited to properties that have just the right combination of architecture, condition, and layout,” he says, adding that fixers are better. The downside is that “because most of these homes can be lived in at purchase, you will be competing with local buyer-users who can outbid you,” he says. However, the competition among investors and flippers is much lower in the luxury market because there are fewer people who can afford to fund high-end projects and who understand how to execute them at a high level, Belson says. 

Invest Internationally

Investing in luxury real estate abroad can have benefits you won’t find domestically. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, a small British overseas territory located east of Cuba and north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, there are no annual property taxes and no capital gains taxes on transferred property. Property ownership is protected by a land registry, and the U.S. dollar is the official currency, so exchange rates aren’t a factor in completing the purchase or in your property’s future value.

These islands are a good place to invest because land prices have increased steadily over the last ten years and are expected to continue to do so thanks to rapidly increasing tourism and development, says Blair MacPherson, co-owner, and broker of RE/MAX Real Estate Groups Turks and Caicos. And you can earn additional income from your investment by renting it out while you’re away and letting a management company handle the details, he says. 

Investing abroad can also have unique hassles. “We have to remember that the rest of the world does not operate like we do in the States,” RUHM’s Fitzpatrick says. “You do not want to purchase a property in another country only to find out the government can take it back from you down the road.” Use an international real estate attorney and other professionals to help with your due diligence, he says. 

Buy a Luxury Condo

Whether you’re buying a luxury condo for yourself or to rent out, “spending money on a home located in a great luxury building with amenity and transportation options nearby is the way to go,” says Lydia Sussek of Corcoran, a full-service real estate firm in Manhattan. “Buying in a luxury-looking building with poor transportation options is a poor investment,” she says.

The services and features the building offers can also make or break your investment. “Don't have a full-time doorman? Fine, but what else does your home offer? Views, high ceilings, terraces, all of these features help distinguish your home from other cookie-cutter apartments and can lead to a higher selling rate when it's time to move out,” Sussek says.

Keep in mind that when you're buying luxury real estate, you're buying a lifestyle. Private roof decks, swimming pools, common spaces with fitness centers, and maid service or hotel-style services distinguish luxury real estate, she says. “Even if there are other new condos built around the home you buy, these types of properties hold value,” Sussek says. 

Jumbo Mortgages for Luxury Real Estate 

While most luxury real estate buyers opt to purchase property with cash, some use jumbo loans to snag luxury real estate. Jumbo loans (also called jumbo mortgages) are loans for amounts greater than the limit that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) sets. Typically that amount is in excess if $424,100; however, in some counties—often those home to more expensive real estate that amount is greater. Currently, the interest rate for a 30-year fixed jumbo rate is 4.25% with an APR of 4.27% according to usbank.com. That's similar to the average rate of a standard 30-year fixed mortgage. As of January 2017, the interest rate for an average 30-year fixed mortgage is 4.25% with an APR of 4.32%.

 

Choose a High-End Vacation Rental Property

“A luxury vacation rental can provide a wealth of benefits including asset appreciation, tax deductions, business networking opportunities, and most importantly, personal enjoyment,” RUHM’s Fitzpatrick says. Choosing a location with a typically strong market is key, such as a ski resort town, Hawaii or a tropical island. “They are great for seasonal income and perform well during good financial markets. However, they may suffer more during a recession than the homes near major cities,” he says. 

Indeed, the luxury housing market experienced the strongest rebound from the housing crash in major cities, but resort areas are starting to follow suit, states a recent report from Christie’s International Real Estate. 

In addition to choosing the right city, investors should consider buying a property that will be attractive to vacationing families, Fitzpatrick says. “It will increase your occupancy rate and your ROI,” he says. 

Bruce Tobias, a 20-time top producing real estate agent with RE/MAX Sedona in Arizona, adds that high-profile tourist resort destinations are a sound choice, and investors should look for properties with the potential for long-term gains. 

Complete a Custom Build

Building a new home from the ground up offers the highest profit margins but has a longer time frame, says Belson, but a home where everything is new and has today’s most desired styles and amenities is crucial in getting top dollar. He says his company is currently constructing a 25,000 square foot home in Bel Air, Calif. “We purchased the property for $8.7 million. The construction budget is $18 million. The projected sale price is $50 million. It's hard to top that as an investment,” he says.  

If you aren’t building the home for yourself, be careful about how you customize it. You’ll want to select a layout, amenities, and finishes that will appeal to a broad segment of the luxury market to maximize your chances of selling quickly and for top dollar. Make sure the home is functional and welcoming and has the security and privacy features that high-end buyers want. But there’s a fine line between creating that broad appeal and creating the uniqueness that luxury buyers crave.

“When something is not commoditized, and it is desirable, and there is demand, that’s when you see prices really jump,” One Queensridge Place’s Char says. “If you look at a bottle of ‘82 Lafitte Rothschild, the price appreciation grows exponentially over a vintage that is less superior because of supply and demand. It’s the same thing with luxury real estate. The more exclusive and harder to find, the more worthy of investment the home becomes.” 

The Bottom Line

Investing in luxury real estate can be more exciting than investing in securities thanks to its tangible aspect, and there are many ways to do it, from building a custom home to flipping a mansion to buying a vacation property. You can enjoy your luxury home as a resident, as a traveler or as a landlord or build luxury homes for others to enjoy. Before you buy, make sure you understand the features that create lasting value in this asset class to get the best return on your investment.