By Konrad Putzier
Recently, Eric Hantman was unable to find his Chinese client an apartment near Central Park for less than $3 million.
It’s not that there weren’t any, or that the CEO of Prime NY didn’t look hard enough. But some of the apartments faced north, some didn’t have enough light, others didn’t have enough space between bathroom and bedroom. The problem was bad Feng Shui.
As more and more international buyers flock into Manhattan’s residential market, brokers and developers are forced to confront the fact that apartments appealing to Americans are often unacceptable to foreigners.
Moreover, there is no uniform foreign taste. Brazilian buyers tend to have different preferences than Chinese, and Western Europeans’ tastes are often a far cry from those of Russians.
Navigating this maze has become more important than ever for New York’s real estate pros.
Feng Shui is a metaphysical belief system with the aim of harmonizing humans with their environment. Immensely popular in China, it comes with a plethora of rules for living spaces. If a building doesn’t conform to them, many Chinese won’t buy or rent.
“They don’t mind high maintenance costs if the unit has what they are looking for,” said Robson Zanetti, international sales director at TOWN Residential. “But if the apartment has an unlucky number, they don’t even look at it – even if it’s magnificent.
“I had a lease at 100 Central Park South and an Asian customer that initially really wanted it. But the layout of the kitchen was facing north, and they cannot have a kitchen facing north.”
Zanetti has also noticed that many of his Chinese clients have an aversion to old buildings. “They have these superstitions and don’t want to live in apartments where someone else has lived before them. It’s a spiritual decision,” he said, adding that his Chinese clients speak very openly about this.
There aren’t too many buildings that meet all the demands of certain Chinese buyers and — unsurprisingly — they tend to congregate in those that do.
Hantman has had great success selling one-bedroom apartments in two glass towers on West 42nd Street to Chinese clients. “If you go to the lobby of one of these buildings, you see the concentration of Chinese people,” he said.
Chinese buyers tend to like new buildings, but offering the same units to European clients may not get a broker very far.
Zanetti said that most of his European clients prefer old, cast-iron buildings downtown. “They are accustomed to living in grand, old buildings,” he explained. “They want a building where they can feel the walls and the columns.”
Europeans also tend to place greater importance on large kitchens than native New Yorkers, as Warburg Realty broker Maria Daou recently told Real Estate Weekly.
Daou, who works with many French clients, recounted a young French couple that had difficulty finding an apartment in their price range, simply because they wanted a kitchen very few Manhattan buildings offer.
But don’t make the mistake of assuming that Russians tend to have tastes similar to Western Europeans.
“Russians very much like new construction,” said Douglas Elliman’s Maria Babaev, who specializes in selling upscale Long Island homes to Russians.
She added that open, well-lit spaces with large floors and high ceilings are especially popular among her clients. “A lot of wealthy Russians are into art collecting, and such open spaces give them the opportunity to display their collection. Some of my clients specifically look for buildings with this in mind,” said Babaev.
Brazilians also prefer newer buildings, such as 432 Park Avenue, according to TOWN’s Zanetti — as long as they are close to Central Park.
New York’s brokers have always had to deal with different tastes and preferences, but the recent influx of foreign buyers is a new kind of challenge. Chinese and Indian buyers are a relatively recent phenomenon, and their preferences are often based on cultures local brokers know little about, or have difficulty relating to. In a business that’s all about understanding a client’s needs, this can be a big problem.
Those who know their clients’ countries personally are at an obvious advantage. Zanetti has Brazilian and Italian parents and has worked in several different countries, which he said helps him understand foreign clients’ preferences. Douglas Elliman’s Babaev grew up in Moscow.
Brokers who don’t know the culture they are dealing with have to be creative.
Zanetti said he organizes seminars for his brokers to prepare them for the possible peculiarities of international clients. If he meets with a high-profile foreign client, he usually brings a colleague along who speaks the language and knows the culture.
Hantman said he recently asked someone who is married to an Asian to advise him on Feng Shui — a subject he admits to knowing little about.
Developers are also starting to engage with their clients’ cultural peculiarities. Last October, Feng Shui consultant Judith Wendell performed a blessing of the construction site for the 46-story Baccarat hotel and residential tower at 20 West 53rd Street. She said she is currently consulting with the developers of three 60 to 80-story residential towers in Manhattan, looking at floor plans and interior design.
Wendell, founder of the firm Sacred Currents, said there is no blueprint for good Feng Shui — it all depends on the building. “A door facing a great view might be good. But if the chi (or positive energy) flows out that door too quickly, it might not nurture the apartment,” she explained.
Over the past three years, Wendell has noticed an increase in demand for her services from developers. Most of them approach her with potential Chinese clients in mind.
“They don’t want to make mistakes,” she said. “They know they have a lot of Asian buyers and don’t want to do something that offends somebody.”