Eight popular amenities for high-end homes

USA Today

Rusty Weston, 24/7 Wall St.

infinity pool


California mansion, waterfront estate, big house, rich, wealthy, cliff. Not every high-net-worth individual will spend what it takes to build or buy a dream home. But quite a few will pop for a luxurious amenity that may enhance their lifestyle and the value of their homes.

Rather than simply buy a larger manse, upscale buyers are “going back and doing more work on their homes,” says Paul Boomsma, president of Luxury Portfolio International in Chicago, whose firm caters to this elite segment of the market. “These [homeowners] don’t necessarily need more square footage, but they are feeling the want to update and increase the finish of their home.”

What’s the latest in luxury amenities? 24/7 Wall St asked Luxury Portfolio International to help us identify what’s hot heading into 2013. Have you heard about wet rooms? “The Jacuzzi world was great, but the problem is people don’t have the patience to wait for it to fill up,” says Boomsma. “What they want is the experience of being surrounded in water. In a wet room, you turn on jets and the deluge of water comes all around you. There may be a tub, bench or slab that you can lie down or sit on.”

Before the housing bust in 2008, home spending often went into building larger spaces. Today, dollars are flowing into well-crafted amenities, such as stone bathtubs or infinity pools.

High-end textures are also a sign of the times. “One of the first things in luxury homes right now is a lavish use of wall finishes, floor finishes and ceiling finishes,” says Boomsma. This translates into greater use of “raw stone” on walls or even the use of glass for walls, along with more imported woods. “Wood paneling, stone paneling, glass paneling, and tiling — all surfaces are being finished,” according to Boomsma.

What makes a home amenity extravagant? Consider the typical suburban great room, which combines a kitchen, a dining area and a living space. Nice, but in a luxury home with the identical square-footage costs may run at least 10 times higher because of the homeowner’s choice of materials or craftsmanship. For instance, a high-end home “might have 28-foot-high rather than 13-foot-high ceilings” says Malcolm Morris, a Chicago-based architect and owner of MDM Development Architecture, who consults with high-net-worth homeowners about the design and construction process. He says his wealthy clients “spend a lot of money on millwork — built-in cabinetry and paneling that can run $100,000 or more.”

Attention to detail is a hallmark of an exceptionally expensive home. “My clients demand alignments to within a sixteenth of an inch with cabinet doors, or the centering of plumbing fixtures in a shower,” he says. Morris remembers traveling to an Italian stone quarry to select blocks of stone, paying special attention to each pattern of fissures, before determining “how best to cut it so the grain runs continuously when it’s on the wall.”

While great rooms that combine a living room, dining room and kitchen have been popular since the early 1990s, savvy architects have refined the concept to make it even more appealing. What Morris looks for in a great room is a “consistency of materials and a single palette” of color to unify the space. Ideally, he says, each area should have its own character, including different heights. While a kitchen is unlikely to have a vaulted ceiling, it can still flow into a living room through the use of color or other common materials, such as flooring or LED lighting.

In northern California’s Silicon Valley, Hadar Gordon, an agent with Sereno Group Real Estate, shows homes in some of the nation’s most expensive enclaves. Gordon reports:

Some newer, hot luxury amenities buyers find appealing include a professional, deluxe personal at-home spa room, custom wine cellar with tasting room, full outdoor kitchen (complete with features like a wood-fire oven for pizza), a vineyard, energy-efficient features including solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling systems, a fully-wired smart system connecting your devices, electronics and security — all controllable from your iPhone or iPad — and eco-friendly materials.

Here are examples of some of the hottest luxury amenities on the market today, along with Morris’ suggestions about what homebuyers should keep in mind when evaluating building or buying a home with these options and what makes these amenities so extravagant.

These are eight amazing home amenities for the rich.

1. Fire and Water Feature

> Location: Scottsdale, Ariz.

> Home price: $5.1 million

> Square footage: 6,198

Who says fire and water don’t mix? Picture a backyard with lovely views, a large infinity pool, a gazebo offering relief from the sun. At night, standing urns are lit with fire that reflect on the water and also provide warmth to the homeowners and their friends lounging around the pool. This backyard entertaining space may also include built-ins such as a wet bar, a grill — or even a pizza oven.

Morris’s architectural view: If you live in an urban setting, Morris recommends a chimney, even if you’re outdoors. But he cautions that “The problem with a fire pit is smoke always goes right where you’re sitting.”

2. Wet Room

> Location: Los Angeles

> Home price: $15 million

> Square footage: 10,000

How can you enjoy the experience of water immersion without jumping in a bath or a spa? Build a well-ventilated wet room with multiple types of showerheads, including a steam feature, and install a bench to sit or lie down. If that sounds complicated and expensive, it is, but it is also likely to be a very popular room in your home. In an ultra-expensive version of a wet room, an owner might install slatted wood flooring made not from oak but from ipê, a South American wood deemed more sustainable than teak.

Morris’s architectural view: “The basic idea of a wet room doesn’t necessary add cost because you can put in one zone a separate bath, shower, steam. Some have LED lights, which are used for various effects.”

3. Stone Surfaces

> Location: Spicewood, Tex.

> Home price: $4 million

> Square footage: 12,000

Stone may be found in fireplaces in older homes, but it is not often used in interiors, not only because of high labor costs, but because finding consistent high quality is expensive and requires considerable expertise. In mansions, such restrictions are eschewed, particularly in the choice of custom chiseled stone tubs. Bathers who do not like the feel of stone may prefer to soak in a $67,000 Kallista Archeo Copper Bathtub.

Morris’s architectural view: Picture a “rustic grotto with all natural stones, including polished natural stones on the wall and floor set individually into concrete. With natural roughness they put a slick shiny bathtub and it adds a note of elegance to offset it.”

4. Technology and Media Center

> Location: Whistler, B.C., Canada

> Home price: US $9,050,000

> Square footage: 5,000

High-end media centers contain well-crafted paneling and built-in amenities such as a wet bar, a small catering kitchen, a refrigerator or a popcorn maker. All those creature comforts come with comfy seating and coexist with a bank of high-def TVs, cameras for videoconferencing and digitally controlled sound systems that may span the entire manse.

Lighting controls are another way that costs mount in a technology and media center. Depending on how the room is used, it should be lit differently, says Morris, so that “you can see what’s in your lap and still see the screen.”

Morris’s architectural view: “Those are becoming more like sitting rooms than movie theaters. Now all of the electronics are simpler. So it’s more like a sitting room or a family room and likely there’s a way to block off the screen when it’s not in use.”

5. Wood Finishes

> Location: Beaver Creek, Colo.

> Home price: $9,495,000

> Square footage: 8,600

Some woods are more exotic and, therefore, more expensive than others. But that’s just the beginning of how costs can spiral with wood, according to the architect, Morris. As with stones or tile, close attention to grain patterns leads to a more consistent look, but also of course adds much more cost. Some homeowners opt for elaborate staining processes that entail as many as eight steps, Morris adds. And he has clients who want all their wood cut from the same log in the same sequence.

Morris’s architectural view: In rooms that use panels, you look for “book-matched graining — at the seam of the veneer it’s like a mirrored image — so there’s continuity in the pattern of the wood. Wood actually brings a color into a room and you can play off of it in [your choice of] the rugs and curtain.”

6. Open Entertaining Kitchen

> Location: Saint Barthelemy, French West Indies

> Home price: $21.8 million

> Square footage: N/A

An open entertaining kitchen could be built in a suburb or perhaps beside a cool urban garden, either of which would be nice, but not nearly as expensive as locating it in a villa in the French West Indies. Sometimes location is the biggest differentiator, rather than room size, building materials or fixtures. At any price point, in an open entertaining kitchen you are seeking a casual yet compelling space to gather your friends or family. Altogether, this property is composed of several bungalows along a terrace, including a villa. The four bedrooms and a heated infinity pool face the sea.

Morris’s architectural view: In an open entertaining kitchen you may “use a giant island to act as a separator between the kitchen and dining areas. If it’s a casual (event), it’s a family-like space. If it’s a formal (event), you have staff working there.”

7. Expanded Great Rooms

> Location: Chappaqua, NY

> Home price: $1,875,000

> Square footage: 3,519

Great rooms that stitch together living, dining and kitchen spaces have been around for several decades, but for high-end homeowners what’s new isn’t the size or purpose of the room, it’s a matter of quality fixtures, flooring and cabinetry.

And the details add up: “If you use large slabs of stone, or big wide boards, it’s harder to do, harder to control and install,” says Morris. “But it has a very high quality look to it. As the individual pieces of material get bigger it costs more to do and has a more refined look.”

“A lot of what fuels what people are building at this level is the thought of entertaining, which is bringing extended family, family and grandchildren together in a relaxed environment,” says Boomsma. “The formal dining room — I don’t know that we’ll see that coming back right away. Kitchens are becoming more manageable spaces — with backup prep space moved to a butler pantry or catering kitchen area.”

8. Wine Cellar Entertaining

> Location: Greve in Chianti, Italy

> Home price: $14 million

> Square footage: N/A

While living in a Tuscan villa may not be realistic for many Americans, the idea of entertaining in a classic wine cellar may translate well for upscale homeowners who have room to spare. On a related note, Boomsma reports that some homeowners are building wine bars in their bedrooms, which in some ways takes this idea a step further.

Morris’s architectural view: A wine cellar is “becoming more than just a closet with wine in it — it’s an intimate entertaining space. Some are in the style of a castle grotto with stone and wood and a little table to have dessert, even within the wine cellar. The lack of windows increases the level of intimacy.”

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