The table is set for breakfast, a fire is glowing in the hearth and there’s the faint sound of music from the children’s rooms upstairs. But although Siddons House, a five-bedroom property on London’s Cornwall Terrace, gives every impression of being lived in, it stands empty. This £45m ($71.5m) house has been “dressed” to attract wealthy Middle Eastern buyers.
Had the property been in Hong Kong or New York, designers might have “staged” it in a different way – with works of art, handmade textiles and individual artefacts to suit the tastes of different buyers.
The cost of second-guessing a buyer’s tastes, particularly discerning wealthy individuals, doesn’t come cheap. The price can be as much as 10 per cent of the value of the property price – about £4m for Siddons House – but, if it’s done well, designers believe they can boost the value of the home by more than 20 per cent.
This is because the days when laying a new carpet, painting the walls magnolia and hanging cream curtains were enough to ensure a quick sale are a distant memory. As competition among sellers has intensified, the methods for attracting buyers have become more extravagant.
“Creating a ‘neutral’ home is no longer enough to make it saleable,” says Beth Dean, director of sales and marketing at Oakmayne, the developer behind the Cornwall Terrace properties in a prime location next to Regent’s Park. “To get the best price a property must be ‘dressed’ its best. Buyers are often cash-rich but time-poor and will make a decision within the first five minutes of walking into a place.”
“Home dressing” or “home staging” – polishing up properties for sale – is a fairly new idea in Britain but it has been popular in the US for some time. In essence, it means employing an interior designer to create something as intricately decorated as a film set. Traditionally, designers used to come in at the end of a project to provide a generic finish. Now they are called on much earlier to create an exclusive feel.
“Prime properties in capital cities attract wealthy overseas buyers,” says Trevor Abrahmsohn, owner of estate agent Glentree Estates. “It’s important to work out who the next wave of buyers will be because we know that certain cultures are less likely to buy into certain designs.
“For example, if I have a house with a garden that narrows at the end, then I’m unlikely to show it to a Chinese buyer because the rules of feng shui mean that a tapering garden suggests the owner’s life is coming to an end. Similarly I wouldn’t tend to show a Nigerian family a home that is decorated in silver and black because it is unlikely to be bright enough for them.”
Architect and designer Steve Leung, who completed an apartment at 39 Conduit Road in Hong Kong, says buyers there and in mainland China insist on quality and exclusivity, down to the last piece of cutlery. “When I develop the lifestyle concept I ask myself, ‘Who is going to live here?’ I start by constructing a story of their everyday lives before designing an interior, so it becomes what I call ‘ready to live,’” he says.
The figures back it up. In London, more than 60 per cent of £10m-plus houses sold in the past year went to foreign buyers, according to estate agent Knight Frank, with 52 per cent more of these sales going to Chinese buyers than last year.
In the US, international purchases – from Canadian, Chinese and Mexican buyers among others – also rose to $82bn this year, up from $66bn in 2010, according to the National Association of Realtors.
“One of the first things we do as a company is to send a team out to visit the countries that our potential buyers are coming from,” says Dean. “It’s vital for us to understand what they want. We need to know what will appeal to buyers from that country.”
She says, for example, that Indian buyers tend to be very family-oriented and like large, functional kitchens. But if the property is expected to attract Russian buyers, they focus on brand names.
The Cornwall Terrace properties in London were “dressed” in four quite different styles to attract a range of overseas buyers – from Russia, Asia, the Middle East and the US.
Helen Green, of Helen Green Design, says she was asked to create a home rather than a show-home in Siddons House, and was given a brief of a well-travelled Middle Eastern family or someone from the US. “I imagined an international buyer who has experience of travelling all over the world wanting to buy this house,” she says.
This was reflected in the pieces she chose, such as the small antique Hellenic marble head on a stand by David Weston at a cost of £400, a pair of silhouettes, one by Folly and the other Principia Fine Art for £200. “The £200 David Weston jade statue, purchased at the Chelsea Affordable Art Fair, was bought to potentially remind the buyer of a trip to China,” Green says. “In the gym/yoga room the cushions were made of raw silk woven materials embroidered in India.”
She says one room uses smokey greys, embroidered papers and warming colours to appeal to people from the Middle East who might be more used to rich textures. “We were also careful to avoid any representational figures in the numerous paintings on the wall so as not to offend Muslim buyers. Which is also why there is no alcohol on display anywhere in the house.”
Another example is the Intarya-designed apartment in The Lancasters development in Bayswater. Although the property sold for £16.8m earlier this year to a British buyer, it was initially dressed with a global international traveller in mind.
Kamini Ezralow, managing director of Intarya, played a key role in designing this apartment. “One of the rooms, in particular, reflects the inclusive culture of the Middle Eastern world,” she says. “The circular seating we chose reflects a custom that no one sits with their back to the room.”
She also used a lot of colour. “We know that international buyers like to have colour in their homes in London because of the grey English weather. They might not use such bright colours in hotter climates but they want to use them in London.”
Sara Cosgrove, head of interior design at Harrods, says that when she works with high-end developers she is asked to think about the local area’s demographics. “In Knightsbridge, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to put in a big kitchen. Buyers here simply don’t tend to spend a lot of time in their kitchen,” she says.
Many clients, she says, are driven by brand: “There is an element of wanting the best or better than their peers. South-east Asian buyers are often driven by hotel style, so want their property to look like the Four Seasons or the Shangri-La. When choosing items for Middle Eastern buyers, we would suggest lots of texture and layered luxury such as gold taps in the bathroom.”
Taken too far, targeting specific buyers based on these generalisations carries the danger of alienating potential clients. Susan Hornbeak-Ortiz, at Shine by SHO in the US, says: “If you do something that relates too obviously to one culture, then don’t overdo it. But, then again, a lot of people will be put off if a property is too neutral, too non-committal.”
“The key thing is to work out who is buying in an area and then grab the attention of those buyers,” says Abrahmsohn. “It’s a constant debate as to which nationality will be the next wave of purchasers in your part of the world. But if you get that right, then you can appeal immediately to a buyer and speed up the sale.”
A port city, Hong Kong trades in ideas as much as it does manufactured goods. Many of its people study and work overseas, opening themselves up to other cultures. So new homes for sale are not only dressed but interior-designed to a fine level of detail to create the east-meets-west look that internationally minded Hong Kong buyers want.
British designer Tara Bernerd created the interiors for a 8,343 sq ft penthouse at Westminster Terrace, in Tsuen Wan district, for British developer Grosvenor. Bernerd took a western approach to using traditionally popular materials such as marble and stone by, for example, creating a grey slate feature wall.
“There is a much more global attitude to design in Hong Kong and that is indicative of the place,” she says. “But there is still an old-school flavour and that comes into finishes at the penthouse, such as the onyx staircase, but that is designed in a very contemporary way, marrying the two.” The onyx staircase costs approximately £50,000.
Her use of punchy hues appeals to Hong Kong buyers because bright colours feature strongly in Chinese culture. Richard Warren
Drawn by the cachet of the building’s architect, IMPei, overseas Asian buyers were attracted to the Centurion, a 19-storey luxury condominium in New York City from the start. But, to ensure a quick sale at a good price, James Stanley Designs was brought on board.
“Developers can no longer have white box units on the market. Buyers want more than this,” says James Stanley. “Understanding the culture of Asia was key.” He used clean lines and simple designs. Most of the furniture is custom-built but he also chose some designer pieces. “Holly Hunt is one of my favourite designers for the Asian market because of the clean lines in the designs, and Robert Kuo also works.”
For colour, he used mere hints of reds, orange and gold in art, fabrics and textures.The cost of the interior design averaged at around 15-20 per cent of the value of the residences, which range from $2.5m to $12.8m.