Unique Amenities What's New in Today's Market?

These days, buying a new condominium might mean access not only to your dream home but also to the kind of high-end amenities that can transform a beautiful home into a spectacular one. At least that is the goal of developers and boards seeking to draw new buyers and keep current unit owners happy. Beyond the bricks and mortar, the condo experience is becoming more about lifestyle, not just living space.

In Chicago, new construction of condos and co-ops has been slow, with more rental complexes than owner-occupied buildings coming to market. This has slowed the introduction of on-site amenities and put the focus squarely on experience, convenience and quality.

The Few, the Proud...

According to real estate experts in the Chicagoland area, few condos and co-ops have been developed in the last few years; though, new apartments have been amenity rich, forcing co-ops and condos to repackage in order to compete with what apartment buildings are offering with basketball courts, entertainment centers, pools, outdoor fire pits, concierges, and the like.

According to the professionals, residential shareholders and unit owners are more focused these days on the perks inside their private residences than in shared common spaces. “People want amenities more in their units than the building,” says Lynn Kummerer, director of relocation, sales, and leasing for The Apartment People, a real estate brokerage in Chicago. “Floor to ceiling windows is a big one and you see that in newer construction. The biggest want is higher end finishes in units. People would rather have higher quality finishes and appliances in the unit than a computer room downstairs.”

Other in-unit enticements include “open kitchen and views,” says Gail Spreen, president and owner of Streeterville Properties, based in in Chicago. “Stainless steel is always appealing but usually already ‘standard.’ Adding technology features to the condo is becoming a strong market feature.”

This is not to say that all of the best features and amenities are to be found in individual units these days. When amenities are offered, they are top-tier and tailored to the needs and wants of residents. “If you look at the Ritz-Carlton Residences Chicago or the Residences at Trump, it’s important for people to have a spa-like health club environment and pool,” says Jim Kinney, vice president of luxury home sales for Baird & Warner, a longtime real estate brokerage, also based in Chicago. “Movie theaters as well—and the Ritz has a bar and pool table area. Ritz residents also have a chef on site who can prepare a meal in the dining room or the apartment, or can cater.”

If these amenities sound a lot like a five-star hotel, it's no coincidence “These are hotel-like features in the condo building,” says Kinney. “It’s mixed use. You can get room service in the building, for example.” Also very hotel-like concierge services are becoming more prominent. “Almost all of the larger buildings have concierges to coordinate things like dog walking, plant watering, getting tickets to events or confirming airline tickets,” says Kinney.

Woof!

Other unusual and sought after amenities include “very dog friendly buildings with dog spas,” says Spreen. Pets have taken on an ever greater role in residential living, says Kinney. A lot of purchases hang on the building’s willingness to embrace their four-legged residents. “Some high-end properties and buildings only allow one dog, but maybe the buyer has two 10 pound dogs. Everything can be hanging on the approval of a little 10-pound dog. Pets are like people’s kids. They’re very invested in them.”

Spreen says other top amenities include “indoor lap pools for residents who may be older, wine cellars, children’s play rooms, electric car charging stations, car washes, guest parking and 24-hour package retrieval as residents are ordering more online.”

Today’s trends in healthy living are manifesting themselves as well in higher-end and more service-oriented gyms and workout spaces. People are looking for full-scale gyms, says Kummerer. “Some buildings also will have separate training rooms so residents can bring in private trainers in for personal sessions.” The attitude regarding in-house gyms these days, she says, is “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.”

A Run for Your Money

According to YoChicago--an online publication offering a “fresh look” at homes, apartments, and neighborhoods in Chicago and suburbs--three downtown buildings have taken in the fitness craze by installing private running tracks for residential use. Domain at 900 North Kingsbury has a quarter-mile rooftop track with spectacular city and skyline views. Grand Plaza at 540 North State Street, has both apartment and condo towers and a track that’s shared by all the residents. Several golf putting greens also surround the track. And the top floors of Aqua, a luxury condo at 225 North Columbus Drive, have a running track for residents and the attached hotel.

Location and Look

Co-op and condo owners also are looking for convenience in terms of location. “We’ve seen a big growth in tech companies in Chicago, and their employees like to live in the city versus the suburbs,” says Kummerer. “So location is coming back as a big factor. Buyers want convenience and lifestyle, especially as they work longer hours. They want to be close to grocery stores and a dry cleaner is always helpful. They want someplace that satisfies all their needs in one neighborhood.”

That desire for convenience may manifest itself as well in the desire for on-site conference rooms. This is an amenity that provides great benefit for the growing number of people who are working from home or engaged in entrepreneurial activities, giving them a meeting and workspace alternative that is far more convenient and professional than the traditional coffee shop down the street.

Buyers and existing residents also want their units and buildings to look contemporary and au courant. Experts site increasing demand in resident expectations; they want updated spaces, stylish common spaces, modern decor...even energy-efficient lighting. Boards and managers should consult industry professionals to learn about stylish and modern trends when looking to freshen up the building. In the end, those refinements pay off for everyone involved. Even the hallways can be important to residents, some say.

Real-World Value

Once those upgrades and enhancements have been made, they need to be kept up to date. There are features that were once highly sought-after in luxury co-ops and condos for example, that are now considered passé. Those include “granite counters, built-in entertainment centers, fireplaces, large whirlpool tubs, mirrored walls, crown molding and heated floors in baths,” says Spreen. Where once these were considered leading edge in the luxury market, units are simply expected to have them or they can be considered a thing of the past for newer, younger buyers. It is vital, therefore, for boards, managers and developers to always have their fingers on the pulse of the marketplace. New levels of luxury are emerging as well, moving beyond what was long thought of as high-end real estate.

Top-Tier Challenges – and What's Next

In any building, decisions on what amenities to include and not include may all come down to scale – what is possible in a building and what is affordable. In some instances, residents and boards may not want to shoulder the additional expense and effort involved in creating and maintaining new amenities.

Some of the challenges involved in establishing or upgrading amenities include providing proper staffing and considerations of liability and safety. Other issues include “costs, over-crowding and too many guests,” says Spreen. “Very popular amenities can encourage residents to have many guests over to enjoy them.” Although this traditionally occurs more in rental buildings than residential properties, “finding ways to restrict access without limiting residents too much can be challenging,” Spreen adds.

With regard to costs, Spreen says, “Monthly assessments would need to cover increased wear and tear of most popular amenities. With very special luxury amenities and services, their costs need to be borne by the condo owners. This can be a challenge.”

In the months and years to come, as more people move to Chicago, there will be an ever-greater need for new and renovated properties with amenities at the top of the list of enticements for new buyers. “The downtown section of Chicago will be the next big area where people will live,” says Kummerer.

According to Kinney, “There is a strong need for new (residential properties). As soon as banks start lending, there are people who want to build them. There’s just not enough inventory and a lot of younger buyers today prefer to buy new properties. Most available places are older and that’s a disconnect for younger buyers.”

No doubt those developers will offer a creative and broad range of amenities to attract buyers. While an amenity alone may not convince someone to buy a piece of real estate, it may just convince them to sign that bottom line faster. And with the right environment, those niceties may help residents feel more connected to their building, creating a warm, welcoming and convenient community in which to raise a family and spend a lifetime.    

Elizabeth Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.