Years ago, when you bought a co-op or condo apartment, you looked for a unit that had the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms, a perfectly-sized kitchen, and some great living space. For the longest time, that ideal combination was all an apartment needed to attract a buyer to a particular building or association. As property values increased, and as developers built more and more new multifamily developments however, they needed a way to draw homebuyers away from one building and over to theirs. And so began a battle of the multifamily Joneses. Building A had the state-of-the-art gym, so Building B added a gym and a movie screening room. Building C added all of that and then some, including a private personal trainer on-call at nearly any hour of the day.
New Jerseyans might think that this brand-focused real estate might be restricted to the big-city real estate market of New York City, but many empty-nesters and young professionals are also looking to New Jersey for condo living that fits their lifestyle. “Not too long ago, having a doorman, concierge, valet, tennis court, pool and fitness center constituted an 'ultra-luxury' building,” says Liz Comando, PCAM, CMCA, the chief operating officer of Taylor Management in Whippany. “Nowadays, all that's changing. As new buildings are constructed, it's all about the amenities, inside and out.”
Amenities Arms Race
How common is this tale of dueling amenities? Common enough that last April, Forbes magazine featured an article on condo amenities one-upmanship and how it’s fueling sales in high-end high-rises across many urban markets. Author Beth Weinberg explained that the newest lure for high-rise residents in New York City is a built-in supermarket. She reported that six specialty food stores had opened over the past year in mixed-use residential/commercial spaces. And the trend is hardly exclusive to Gotham; nearby Jersey City and Hoboken are seeing the same types of buildings crop up.
“Buyers are hungry for the most comprehensive amenities ever seen in condominiums,” says Beth Stern, a senior sales director with the Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, which handles buildings throughout the region. “Likewise, developers want to distinguish their projects with unique amenity spaces and best-in-class services,” she says. For example, at the new Halcyon condo building in Midtown Manhattan, HFZ Capital Group made the decision to move the building amenities all the way to 21st and 22nd floors, which could have been valuable residential real estate.
“However, they felt that offering amenities with spectacular views, bathed in light, would ultimately create tremendous value. In particular, the Sky Lounge, Aqua Spa, a 52-foot lap pool, fitness center, and movement studio feature floor-to-ceiling windows.”
The market’s emergence from the recent recession hasn’t changed the development of amenities either, just the final product. “Amenities help in both good and bad markets,” says Stern. “In the most recent real estate cycle, we are seeing developers think differently about the type of amenities they are offering. It isn’t necessarily about more, it’s about creating thoughtful multi-use amenities that are both efficient and provide versatile spaces for residents to do anything from yoga to host a formal dinner party.”
The most visible trends in indoor amenities can be found in common areas. In the past, buildings might have featured a small gym for workouts, maybe a pool, and a recreation room, with games and a TV. Now, buildings are looking to spruce up those areas as much as possible with spa centers, simulated golf centers, and even wine cellars. Instead of common areas just being a space to have a kids' birthday party or a Super Bowl gathering, they're becoming bigger and more impressive. “Some community rooms are so elaborate, homeowners are renting them for wedding receptions,” says Comando.
Some New Jersey examples can be found in Hoboken, Jersey City and Fort Lee. For example, KRE Group’s Journal Square development will contain 1,840 units and a community vegetable garden. Jersey City’s 18 Park condos will feature a children’s playroom, a catering kitchen and a TV screening room. Trump Plaza in Jersey City has an outdoor pool with cabanas, a gaming room, virtual golf simulators, and even office space for residents who want remote access. Hudson Tea in Hoboken features a full fitness and aerobics center, a business center, an on-site café, a resident’s club, resident parking, a children’s room, daily PATH shuttle service and a 24-hour concierge to satisfy every whim.
It's not just common spaces that are getting a big push in amenities. Developers are racing to add as many gizmos into unit owners' living spaces as well. “Inside the units, buyers are looking for top grade wiring so they can 'move in and plug in',” says Comando. “They want the latest security systems and electronic blinds, and they want to turn lights on and off and control the temperature of their unit from their smart phones. They want movie-theater quality sounds system in their units,” she says. The days when it was just hardcore audiophiles going to the electronics store to soup up their entertainment systems after the purchase of their homes are over. Now, the average homebuyer is looking for these features to be built into their unit from the get-go.
The surge in amenities has also infiltrated the service side of the market. On top of the in-house rock climbing wall or dog park that some buildings are offering, many high-end buildings are tempting buyers with hotel-style concierge services. A concierge at a hotel can help you with your visit by suggesting restaurants or arranging a night at the theater, and they also can be a point person for any issues regarding services to your room. A condo concierge can do all those things, plus more domestic services as well, like coordinating laundry drop-offs, mail collection, and grocery runs.
Fido, Vino, & TiVo
Another challenge is the actual placement of the amenity. “Developers must carefully plan the proximity of amenities to residences,” says Stern. “Today’s sophisticated amenity schemes consider everything, such as the noise that might emanate from the gym or the residents' lounge. While amenities benefit everyone in the building, they can’t affect the saleability of any particular residence.”
Throughout the years, the wants and needs of residents change too—and some once-hot amenities can become dated and obsolete. “There are a few amenities that are passé in today’s market, like hand-delivered mail, dog spas, and furnished apartments,” says Stern. “On the other hand, there are two amenities that are always desirable at any price point or location: parking and fitness. In order to justify increasing prices in a market where there is a significant amount of new construction, developers need to offer top-notch amenities like swimming pools, rock climbing walls, large elaborately designed outdoor spaces with fire pits, valuable art work in the lobby and hallways, beautiful lobby chandeliers and floral arrangements and high-end entertaining spaces with catering kitchens.”
It should also be noted that it's not just the high-end, urban communities that are seeing a push for amenities. In other parts of New Jersey, where unit owners look for a more tranquil, suburban lifestyle and aren't necessarily looking for a place to store their wine collection, associations are nevertheless reassessing their common areas, and looking to make more use of them. “We have seen probably six clubhouse renovations in the last two months by associations,” says Bob Cherry, general manager at the Quality 1st Companies in Cliffwood. “They're squeezing the management office down and putting in community-type rooms.”
With all these new trappings and changes, one might wonder what could possibly be next. On the one hand, it seems that everything has already been done. But the race to compete is still growing, with highly anticipated real estate projects still popping up across the tri-state area. It looks like New Jersey real estate will become even more desirable as the market in New York City pushes surrounding areas into the fight.
In such a competitive market, sometimes it's not even using the amenities that important to high-end unit owners, but having the option to use them. “Buyers want conveniences, and it's a race to get as many amenities in place as possible,” says Comando. “Buyers want to walk their dogs without leaving the building. They want amenities even if they don't use them.”
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Associate Editor Tom Lisi contributed to this article.