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US developers increasingly design with the Chinese in mind

Luxury projects are being built to cater to Asian lifestyles with lucky numbers and strategic water features prominent

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:24pm

At Lambert Ranch, a high-end residential development in Irvine, California, homes come equipped with Western and wok kitchens with separate ventilation systems.

In The Centurion, a luxury condominium in Manhattan, 47 homes became 48 because the number was deemed luckier, and a north-facing water garden was built, in keeping with the principles of Chinese geomancy.

At The Vista, a trendy residential building on New York's Long Island, there is no fourth floor and the number eight features prominently in every price: US$588,888, for example, instead of US$589,000.

If indeed the US residential property market is finally on an uptick, buyers from Hong Kong and the mainland can take some of the credit. So it is not surprising that developers want to appeal to as much of that market as possible, be that by burying gold coins and red envelopes at construction sites before building starts or thinking about spaces from the perspective of a traditional Chinese joint family.

According to the National Association of Realtors, buyers from the mainland and Hong Kong spent US$9 billion on homes in the US in the year to March 2012. This made them the second-largest group of foreign buyers in the country after Canadians, up 89 per cent from the previous year.

There are two disparate trends starting to emerge in home purchasers in the US among Chinese buyers. Firstly, they are gravitating towards houses and condominiums that would appear to be built just for them, catering to their cultural beliefs and lifestyles. Secondly, they are splashing out on some of the priciest properties around.

More than half the apartments in downtown Los Angeles' most prestigious building, the Ritz-Carlton Residences at LA Live, have been sold, with activity largely driven by Asian investors.

"We didn't do anything on purpose to attract that demographic," said Jim Jacobson, vice president of international sales for the building. "There were already elements in the building that appealed to them - the direction it faces, the positive energy around it."

The smallest homes at the Residences start at about US$1.3 million for 1,500 sq ft, while the most expensive, a two-storey, 6,000 sq ft penthouse, is US$9.3 million. At the smaller end, buyers have been picking up five or six flats at a time, to use as pieds-à-terre, or to give to a child at nearby University of Southern California or the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. The others are then rented out.

Another cultural factor noticed is relatives buying in the same building. "We're seeing brothers and friends buying together, which gives the building a small community feel. And the 44th floor, which is traditionally bad luck, has sold just as many units as the other floors."

Still, in order to usher things along, many new developers are focusing specifically on drawing in Chinese buyers.

Joan Marcus-Colvin, senior vice-president of sales, marketing and design at The New Home Company, developer of Lambert Ranch, said she wanted to focus on multi-generational homes.

"We noticed that Chinese families wanted to be closer together while still having privacy," she said. So houses have been built around attractive courtyards that Marcus-Colvin describes as "reminiscent of Chinese architecture".

In some homes, an 800-sq-ft detached guest house can serve as additional family quarters. In other set-ups, two homes are slotted together with a common courtyard in front, a common rear garden, and no walls separating them.

"There is privacy, but a clear connection, making it easier for parents, grandparents, siblings, children to flow back and forth," said Marcus-Colvin.

A fung shui adviser was consulted on the numbering. Marcus-Colvin said they managed to "eliminate most of the fours, and there are a lot of eights".

Of the 169 homes in the 20-hectare development opened in May, with starting prices at US$1 million-plus, 62 have been sold. According to sources, about 65 per cent of those sales have been to buyers from Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan.

At New York's The Centurion, designed by I.M. Pei and his son Sandy, a fung shui master was brought in to bless the building before sales began. And the overall aesthetic of the place is designed to appeal to a sophisticated Asian sensibility. Its water garden, positioned on the north side of the building, incorporates elements seen as good luck in Chinese culture. Only 11 apartments, ranging in price from US$2.5 million to US$39 million, are left.

The move to appeal to Chinese buyers specifically can be seen at every price point. At The Vista, eight units were snapped up in the first 25 minutes of sale. Prices for the homes have since risen to a top price of US$888,800, and there is now a waiting list.

"Given the interest among Asian buyers and the influx of Asian investors coming into Long Island City, we hired a fung shui master," said Eric Benaim, chief executive and president of Modern Spaces, the exclusive sales and marketing team for the development. "We put doors and mirrors in the bathrooms according to his instructions. We took away the fourth floor and priced everything with an eight, and have hired several agents who are fluent in Chinese."

Benaim expects that the 48 homes, which are yet to be unveiled, will be sold out by the end of the year.

For Sky View Parc in New York, the acclaimed Master Pun Yin, who oversaw the blessing of the Mandarin Oriental and Trump Hotel in New York, was hired.

"We wanted to make sure we were catering to this demographic," said Helen Lee, director of Onex, the Sky View Parc developer.

But Lee added that it was important not to alienate non-Asian buyers while courting the Chinese. "We have a lot of Western buyers. So we skipped the 14th floor because that's not a good number. But we skipped the 13th as well."