By: Nena Groskind
Condominium amenities, like clothing styles, go in and out of fashion. Amenity preferences don’t change as often as hem lines, lapel widths, or shoe shapes. But they do change, creating challenges both for developers trying to decide what amenities to include in new projects and for condominium communities, lacking amenities current and prospective owners want, or saddled with amenities no one is using.
One component of the amenities calculation that doesn’t change is the key role demographics, location and cost play in determining owners’ preferences. Logic suggests that amenities packages would be different in:
• Over-55 communities vs. communities occupied primarily by young professionals;
• Suburban town-homes vs. urban high-rises; and
• High-end, luxury communities vs. properties at the lower end of the cost and income spectrums.
And all of those observations are accurate, to a point. But discussions with industry executives make it clear that the dividing lines are a lot fuzzier and amenity preferences far more nuanced than these overly broad generalizations suggest.
It is axiomatic in the condominium world that owners want every amenity imaginable and every service managers can provide – they just don’t want to pay for them. While that axiom probably applies generally, if not equally, across age and income lines, there is no question that less affluent condominium owners will generally be more price sensitive and more likely to forego amenities because of the cost.
What Owner Want and What they Will Pay For
“People are realistic,” Susan Hawkes, president and chief executive of The Collaborative Companies, a Boston-based real estate marketing firm, notes. “There’s a value index of what they are willing to pay for. The further you move down the income ladder, the more price drives the [amenities] decision,” she adds. “People prefer to put their hard-earned monthly carry into their four walls rather than into the fluff outside of them.”
Hugh Shaffer, PCAM, on-site manager at Harbor Towers in downtown Boston, agrees. Budget-constrained buyers (who, he notes, can be found at different income levels) recognize that maintenance costs will be lower in properties with fewer amenities, reducing the risk that dues increases might upset their “precarious” financial balance.
But a property’s size can be as significant as owners’ income in predicting amenity choices, Hawkes points out. The larger the community, the lower its per-unit amenities costs will be. There are definitely ‘tranching’ price points,” she says.
During the real estate boom years (you’ll find references to them in the history books now), it seemed that developers were competing to see who could offer the most over-the-top amenities to buyers who seemed at the time to be demanding them: Wine bars, opulent common area dining rooms with gourmet kitchens and state-of-the art fitness rooms with massage rooms and sometimes with massage therapists staffing them were common in higher-end projects.
Pools Are Out
With developers just emerging from their recessionary hibernation, it is still too soon to identify new trends. But Steve Dannin, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, owner of Dannin Management Corp., has noticed that four new suburban communities are being built without swimming pools. And they aren’t all targeting lower-end buyers. One high-end community, he notes, “has everything else, but no pool,” while another “has no clubhouse, no pool, no maintenance building and no tennis courts.”
Dannin speculates that developers are assuming owners in both lower and higher-end communities “would rather put their money into reserves rather than amenities.” At the higher end he says, developers may also recognize that many owners spend their summers in vacation homes, and are not interested in paying for a swimming pool they aren’t going to use.
The amenities discussion is complicated somewhat by the difference between the amenities buyers and some current owners want or think they want when shopping for a condominium, and the amenities they actually use when they move in.
There’s a curb-appeal factor at work, too. Developers know that buyers expect to see amenities in communities they are considering, whether they intend to use them or not. And current buyers, for their part, assume that the amenities will be essential to appeal to future buyers to whom they will want to sell in the future. This explains, to some extent, why many amenities viewed as “must-haves” are also under-used.
Swimming pools seem to top that list. That is especially true in urban condominium communities, although less so in suburban ones, where, C. Jerry Ragosa, president of The Niles Co., Inc. AMO, observes, “pools are as popular as ever,” primarily as an area where residents can socialize.
Saunas and whirlpools, on the other hand, are definitely on the “out” list, Ragosa says, largely because of health concerns related to their use. Racquetball and volleyball courts have also become “yesterday’s” amenities, along with the theater rooms, that had become ubiquitous in higher-end urban communities.
Many people now have flat screen televisions in their living rooms, Hawkes notes, so “they don’t have to go to a theater room to screen movies.” And when residents do gather in common living spaces, she says, “they want to socialize. They don’t want to sit in a closed room with the lights off and their mouths shut.”
Expanding the Four Walls
The desire to socialize with other residents has made large common area lounges and meeting rooms increasingly popular, especially, although not exclusively, in urban areas, where construction costs have forced developers to reduce the size of units in order to keep them affordable for targeted buyers. Common area gathering spaces are a way of “expanding the four walls,” Hawkes says, noting, “You can’t fit many people in 500 square feet,” at least, not comfortably.
While some amenities seem to appeal more to one demographic or another, space in which to socialize isn’t one of them. At Harbor Towers, which “is about as diverse a community as you are likely to find,” Shaffer says, “it is hard to tell who enjoys socializing more.” Older residents, unmarried professionals, and couples with young children all enjoy community activities in the lobby area (the only large common indoor space available in this development); they gather in equal numbers around the pool and in the lawn area surrounding it in warmer weather.
While common meeting rooms or lounge areas appeal broadly across demographic lines, older and younger residents tend to use the space differently, Ragosa notes. Younger people want to “hang out” in a common lounge, using the area as a place to meet “informally” with others. Older residents are more likely to want organized activities – book clubs, lectures, card games, and the like. But there is no question, he agrees, that a large gathering area is as important in a downtown urban condominium occupied primarily by young professionals as in a suburban over-55 community.
Perhaps even more important in some of them. Robert McBride, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, president of The Dartmouth Group, Inc., AAMC, AMO, says a developer who “grossly underestimated” the demand for common space in a 240-unit over-55 community is doubling the size of the clubhouse in a new community with half the number of units.
Catering to Pets
Like common area meeting spaces, pet-related amenities also bridge demographic boundaries, Ragosa says. For younger residents, pets are surrogates for children they don’t yet have; for empty-nesters, pets fill the void created by children who no longer live at home. As a result, more communities are welcoming pets instead of adopting rules restricting or barring them. And pet-walking areas have become popular amenities in a broad range of communities, where they provide not just a convenience for owners, Ragosa says, but also another area in which owners can socialize. “It’s amazing how much [community] good comes from them,” he notes.
Fitness centers also have broad appeal to condominium owners, unrelated to their age and less related than you might expect to their income levels. Older owners “want to squeeze as many active, healthy years as they can into their lives,” Ragosa notes, while younger ones are far more aware of the need for exercise than their parents and grandparents tended to be at their age.
Upper-income owners would be expected to demand more extensive and more ups-scale fitness areas than less affluent ones, but this is another area where assumptions that seem obvious turn out not to be entirely accurate. With the proliferation of high-end gyms featuring up-scale amenities, Hawkes notes, developers are finding that exercise areas in high-end communities don’t have to be as large or as luxurious as they once were. How much developers can scale back in this area, she says, depends on how close the community is “to one of those very sexy gyms.”
For owner s in all age and income categories, a primary concern is convenience, Shaffer notes. Even in high-end communities, the equipment doesn’t necessarily have to be state-of-the-art, he agrees with Hawkes. It just has to be readily available. For just about everyone today, Shaffer says, “time is an asset and it’s in short supply.” Even if there is a gym located down the street, he notes, “people want the option of exercising on site.”
The shortage of time and the desire for convenience have also put concierge services on the list of standard amenities in upscale, urban communities. There is a pampering factor, as well, McBride notes.
“People like feeling as if they are being doted on; they like services that make them feel special.” Hawkes refers to it as “white glove” treatment – which can include everything from having someone open the door and help with packages, to having an attendant available to make dinner reservations, pick up the laundry and walk the dog.
Technology has made it possible for less affluent communities to offer concierge-like services through association Web sites that list restaurants and other services owners can access easily, “without doing a Google search,” Ragosa says
Even the upscale concierge services can be scaled back a bit to what Dannin refers to as “attentional service.” Most people can order movie tickets, arrange for laundry pick-up and make dinner reservations easily on-line, he notes. But they appreciate and are willing to pay for someone to check on their home, collect the mail and start their car when they are away.
Industry executives speculating about current and future amenities trends emphasize features that can be expected to add value to a community. Parking —especially underground parking in downtown communities – and storage space are perennials – the equivalent of the “basic black dress” in the fashion world, unlikely to lose their appeal to owners.
In-unit services are also moving rapidly into the “glad we have this” or “wish we had it” category. Owners want and appreciate the convenience of having people on site who can handle handyman-type repairs for them, McBride notes. But the service requires staff members capable of doing the work, and a budget designed to support it. If that expense isn’t built into the association’s budget almost from the beginning, McBride says, the reluctance to increase common area fees will make it very difficult to add later.
If adding new amenities is difficult, eliminating existing ones is almost impossible and for similar reasons. Adding or subtracting amenities and even exchanging an under-used amenity for a more desirable one would qualify as “improvements” to the community, which unlike repairs, require the approval of owners, and a super-majority of them, at that. The 10 percent or 20 percent of owners using the amenity and their friends will all vote against the idea, as will owners who feel they based their original purchase on the existence of the amenity, even if they don’ t use it.
So unused swimming pools continue to drain maintenance budgets, because boards know they won’t find enough owners willing to vote in favor of filling them in. And rooftop decks – once must-haves for downtown high-rises, Ragosa says, until owner discovered they didn’t like climbing stairs to reach them – suffer from benign neglect. Old furniture isn’t replaced, shrubs aren’t replanted, and worn deck covering (unless it is causing other problems) isn’t repaired.
These are common experiences. When an un-used tennis court in a community Dannin managed developed drainage problems, the board wanted to pave it over, but owners wouldn’t approve the change. “So they spent $200,000 to repair it instead,” Dannin says. The tennis court is now fully functional, he notes – and still unused. □