When the real-estate market was booming, all those years ago at the beginning of the 21st century, a tower seemed to be rising on every corner in Manhattan. The people developing and selling these buildings had to differentiate their products, most of which had the same ceiling heights, oak flooring, and more or less standardized kitchens and baths. So a lot of them did it with glitz: Add a super-duper lobby, a wine cellar, a pet spa to one of those buildings, and you could advertise your new development as “unique living!” Buyers, too, joined in. Many had new money, from Wall Street; others were envisioning a Sex and the City life, and amenities like a dedicated game room for the guys or a spa for the women seemed appropriate.
When Vanessa Uzan bought a condo a few years ago, just across the river in New Jersey, she wanted something fabulous and fresh. Now she is looking to move back into Manhattan, and everything’s different. “I’m not swayed by a brand-new kitchen. I don’t need a granite countertop,” she says. Uzan is strictly focused on the fundamentals: location, square footage, closet space, and maintenance fees.
All over the real-estate business, observers are saying that same calculus is playing out. “It’s more about the space, the home, what life they can live in it,” says Century 21’s Barbara Lamb. Buyers are far less quick to forgive subpar locations or odd layouts in sexy projects. “When the market was hot, they’d see amenities and cool configurations and respond to that,” says JC DeNiro executive vice-president S. Hunie Kwon. “I sold spaces where, in the final walk-through, buyers would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were only three closets.’ ” But at his recent open house, he says, hardly anyone admired the fancy backsplash and high-style furniture; the efficient layout and washer-dryer “really got them going,” Kwon says.
Warburg Realty’s Frederick Peters says apartment-hunters are no longer “willing to be teased by what they thought was sexy. This is a value marketplace. Gimmickry won’t motivate.” Instead, says developer Henry Justin, whose 211 East 51st Street condo has only the amenities he deemed essential—doorman, gym, a garden. “You want to make sure your home is where your money’s spent.” Particularly if buying it leaves you too broke to go out.