|“I always say that real estate isn’t bricks and mortar,” Owen explains. “It’s a a lifestyle.”|
Go ahead, call me a philistine. What has caught my eye isn’t the elevated crown molding or the perfect inlay of hexagonal antique tile from Provence. It’s not the twin Bosch dishwashers or the magnificent La Cornue range with the Danish copper hood. No, it’s what protrudes from the wall between the range and the hood. A pipe, it looks like, with some kind of valve.
“What is that?” I ask.
“It’s a pot pourer,” says Janet Owen, and graciously explains that it saves carrying heavy vats of pasta water from the sink to the stove.
I could have inquired about the flat piece of wood with the poles underneath and she would have replied, in the same imperturbable voice, “It’s a table.”
Not much fazes Janet Owen. She knows better than to make judgments. Some of her best clients show up in running clothes. “Some who are dressed to the nines,” she says, “are maxed out and can’t afford a loan.”
So please, please, if there is any question about your credit, if you are not a serious buyer, do not take up Owen’s time. She is a busy woman. She is one of a very select group, a handful at most-the elite real-estate brokers who have survived every twist of the market to stay on top. This past winter Real Estate Executive magazine tagged her: “Simply the Best!”
She may also be the best dressed. She is a fan of elegance, though the small stuff, the mere tokens of success, mean nothing. You will not find Owen behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Lexus or even a Yugo. In the company of a client, having to drive would be too distracting. Owen takes taxis. Let clients think what they may.
Let reporters think what they may.
The morning we are scheduled to meet at the house on Dayton Street, she calls on my cell phone. “Where are you? Would you mind terribly picking me up? I got halfway to the house and realized I forgot the keys.”
Owen is mostly a listings agent-that is, she represents sellers, and today the house she is selling is very nice indeed. The full-size 16-page color brochure begins, “Rarely [do] limestone and mortar combine to create a masterpiece. . . . [This is] the most beautiful home on the market.” Custom built in 2001, it is a 5,400-square-foot, five-bedroom knockout. The kitchen is by Christopher Peacock, a big name in home design. The spa/master bath has “English faucetry.” The hardware and hinges are French Bouvet; there are “Honduran mahogany ball and socket French doors.” You get a 1,000-bottle wine cellar and two fully equipped laundry rooms. The front steps include an “automatic snow melt.”
The house is currently occupied, but you would never know it. Every countertop is spotless. Strategically placed bowls of fruit look composed by Cézanne. Politely but firmly, Owen asks for my Starbucks container to dispose of. There are no cookies baking in the oven, an ancient ploy to seduce buyers. Owen does not sell houses with cookies. There is also no music playing. Here, and particularly in high-rises, Owen feels that buyers will suspect the music is on to hide noise. But the floors-yes, the floors are worth noting. “Heart of pine-that means one board for each tree,” marvels Owen, as if honoring a mink that had given up its entire pelt for a cuff. “Can you imagine? It’s unbelievably expensive.”
Depending on your point of view, the house, too-1924 North Dayton Street-is expensive, on the market for $3.595 million.
Owen herself lives a few blocks east, on Howe Street. She loves the neighborhood. She says she will sell houses only in neighborhoods she loves. She loved the Gold Coast when she lived there. She loved Streeterville and Lincoln Park, where she also had homes. So this neighborhood-well, who can beat it? “I always say that real estate isn’t bricks and mortar,” she explains. “It’s lifestyle. We’ve got a butcher down the street; there’s a world-renowned five-star restaurant and a place for Italian ice. Mothers are pushing baby carriages, and people are walking dogs. Armi- tage is our Main Street.”
Its homey attractions notwithstanding, this area of real estate-roughly bordered, going clockwise, by Dayton, Armitage, Howe, and North Avenue-has experienced a startling face-lift in the past few years.
I looked at a home myself on Burling ten years back. The house is long gone, torn down, the lot merged with its neighbor to anchor what can only be described as a mansion. There are mansions up and down Burling. At the north end, near Armitage, the March First baron Robert Bernard built a five-lot version of Versailles before his fortunes tumbled. John Bucksbaum, the chief executive officer of General Growth Properties, completed his home at the south end this year.
The abundance of high-profile names has prompted some to call this area the new Gold Coast. Many of Chicago’s social elite live here. So do successful traders, bankers, and lawyers. The prospective buyer of 1924 North Dayton would fit in nicely. She is a big partner in a big law firm and arrives dressed in a smartly tailored suit. Her name is Linda. In many ways the house is just what Linda wants. She loves the “finishes,” the moldings, the cabinetry. Even the daring tartan plaid in the basement thrills her. She is a Francophile, and she knows all about Delft tile.
It’s just, well, the house isn’t big enough. Five bedrooms and 5,400 square feet are nice. “But more spacious is what we’re shooting for. What do they want for the lot next door?”
|In January 2006, Owen took home Sudler Sotheby’s award for a lifetime sales volume of nearly $500 million.|
The owners of 1924 North Dayton happen to own the adjacent lot, on which a decent enough three-flat sits. That house, needless to say, could be toast. Owen, in fact, just happens to have a set of architectural renderings that show 1924 with a two-story wing extending south to form what looks like a museum. Linda pores over the drawings. The addition will include a large courtyard and fountain. The upstairs bedrooms are twice the current size. There’s a four-car garage. This is more like it.
“I suppose I should think about the construction costs,” Linda says as an afterthought.
“Well, you can’t overpay in this neighborhood,” says Owen cheerily.
It was Irene Pritzker who helped launch Owen into the high-end market. That was 1983, a bad time for real estate, and Irene, a former wife of Robert Pritzker, was trying to unload her two-and-a-half-floor condominium at 1555 North Astor Street. One agent after another came through and grimly shook his head. “Janet came in and . . . said, ‘Let’s take a shot at it,'” Pritzker recalled in Real Estate Executive magazine. The condo was listed for almost double what other agents had suggested-and sold within a week.
It has been mostly up since then. For the past 17 years, Owen has been the top volume producer at Sudler Sotheby’s, a Chicago realty firm known for handling high-end properties. In January 2006, at a company gala, she took home Sudler Sotheby’s award for a lifetime sales volume of nearly $500 million. True, there are faster-rising stars on the circuit. Admittedly, last year Owen scarcely topped $15 million in sales (that is, total prices on the properties she sold). Other brokers sniff at her flagging output, although as of June 1, 2006, Owen was already at $25 million. Not everyone, it should be said, is a fan. The dissenters view the cover story in Real Estate Executive as a seven-page wet kiss: friends and colleagues gushing about how nice she is; all that charity work; the saintly ethics. But nobody wants to vent in print. “She’ll kill you with details” is the worst I hear from a broker, who then quickly clams up. That broker, and several others, groan about Owen’s interminably long messages in the midst of a negotiation. “Death by a thousand cuts” is the broker’s way of describing Owen’s strategy.
Call it sour grapes, because most top agents have nothing but praise for Owen, with “thoroughness” replacing “details.” It may strike some as odd that there is not more catty gossip, but at the high echelon it makes good sense to stay on cozy terms with so-called rivals. “It’s a small, small group,” says Owen, “and we all know each other. If you say just the first names-Natasha or Elizabeth or Jennifer-everyone knows whom you mean.”
Jennifer is Jennifer Ames, a bright star at Coldwell Banker, another respected big firm. Ames is proudest of her consistency: in sales volume, she has rated among Chicago’s top ten brokers for nine years running. She and Owen are on cordial terms. “It’s very important to work cooperatively with peers,” says Ames. “Buyers and sellers come and go; successful agents are around for the long term. There’s plenty of business to go around. If I don’t get one listing, I’ll get another.”
What distinguishes Owen, says Ames, is her deep knowledge of the market. “She understands buildings; she understands construction.” Owen and Ames share another trait, which both cite as critical. “We’re like doctors,” says Ames. “This is a 24/7 job.”
Ames and I connected on the phone an hour after I left her a voice-mail message. She was in a bathrobe-at an Arizona spa with her mother. “But you see,” she pointed out, “I’m always available.”
It’s no accident that this chummy group of superperformers are all female; real estate, at least in Chicago, is very much a woman’s game. Ames explains: “Historically, real estate was a venue more accessible to women. It gave you the flexibility to scale back if you had a family. We’re in control of our own work schedule. We’re independent contractors.” Another broker, less empowerment minded, calls it “the default job after a divorce.”
Owen may be the exception to both rules: she started selling because she was sure she could do it better. A Connecticut na- tive, she came to Chicago after graduating from the University of Wisconsin and taught first grade. She met her husband when a drapery rod broke in her apartment and a nice fellow tenant she encountered in the building lobby offered his services. She and Rodger Owen, who have no children, have been married for 25 years. After Rodger received an MBA from the University of Chicago, he started to buy and sell property, often complaining bitterly about the real-estate agents he had to deal with. “I thought to myself, I can do that,” says Owen. “And I thought I could do it even better!”
Today Rodger is the chief executive officer of BDG & C, a Chicago builder that specializes in high-end custom-made homes. In fact, Rodger built the house on Dayton. Owen, of course, didn’t sell it-conflict of interest!-but Rodger’s role is no impediment now since this is a resale. He did, however, draw up the extension.
“Everyone thinks I sell my husband’s homes,” she says. “But I made it a policy not to. I don’t want anyone to think I would be more motivated [to sell his homes]. I absolutely would not do that.”
Perhaps you think it’s easy selling a house with snow-melting steps and two laundry rooms. You open the door, you show the spa bath, you talk up the neighborhood, you take a check. It is this kind of attitude, alas, that has drawn a great many brokers into the business. And, guess what: now there are too many. This spring, the Chicago Tribune reported that membership in the National Association of Realtors had swelled from 767,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2005. The competition is rough; in the Chicago area alone there are 16,000 members. Meanwhile, home sales have softened, and commissions are down.
Still, several agents I talked to in the spring happily reported multiple offers-meaning buyers are bidding more actively for homes. It’s evidence of a favorite mantra of Owen (and other local agents): unlike the seesaw East and West coasts, Chicago has no wild swings. “I don’t have anybody who’s lost money,” she says. By the same token, it’s tricky to speculate and expect big profits. In new construction, for instance, the hot area is east of Michigan Avenue and north of Grant Park. But Owen is not alone in cautioning buyers not to jump the gun, especially if they plan to flip a condo for a much higher price. With so much new construction there will likely be liquidity issues-meaning that buyers might opt for new homes instead of a condo resale.
If you are still tempted to become an agent, Owen has a few tips. Listen to a client. Have a long sit-down to determine what the client wants. Otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time. Don’t start with a wildly high price in the vague hope that a buyer will go for it. No buyer will, not in this market. Then you drop the price and the property is tarnished and stays on the market too long. Nor is it nice-or smart!-to garner business by promising a seller that you will sell the house at a price the market cannot support.
People buy the house-not the broker.
Be wary of idly tossing out a price; it’s what’s called “anchoring,” and a prospective buyer or seller will never forget it.
Always be willing to negotiate, even a little. If you’re showing a house, don’t let the client go crazy with an extravagant rehab. The mechanicals are more important-a new furnace, a good roof. A little money on closets won’t hurt. “I’m amazed what they’re building. There are closets with islands,” says Owen, who admits that she has a lot of clothes. Keep an eye on the kids. Owen just sold a house on Arlington Place. The deal was sealed when all three children jumped into the Jacuzzi and squealed. “Bathrooms have become the new family room,” she says.
It’s important to weed out the oglers. Christie Hefner, the chairman and chief executive officer of Playboy Enterprises, had a fabulous duplex on Scott Street that she wanted to sell. There was a rooftop garden and a quaint winding stair. “The place was big, but it obviously wasn’t right for a family with kids,” says Hefner. “It was tricky to sell, but Janet showed it off to its best advantage. Somehow she kept away the curiosity seekers who imagined all sorts of pictures up on the walls.”
Did the house sell for what Hefner wanted? “Not quite,” she says, smiling, her fingers an inch apart. “But very, very close.”
Owen also represents buyers. She does it loyally, with great acumen, but she is the first to admit that “the approach is very different.” A listings agent, representing sellers, excels at details, at management-placing ads, running the Web site, scheduling open houses, tracking bids. A buyer’s agent merely hunts. She is not the queen of her domain. Her enthusiasms are tempered by a client’s reaction. She has got to be quick on her feet. She cannot merely extol the antique English fireplaces and Peacock millwork. Often, in fact, she cannot extol anything. “As a buyer’s agent, mostly I stand around quietly,” she told me as we waited for a buying client at a high-rise on North Dearborn Street.
The client, middle-aged and widowed, is planning to decamp from a Gold Coast condo with too many memories. She is looking for a new home for less than a million. Owen has a list of properties to see that will take the better part of an afternoon, starting with 1440 North State Parkway, a seventies high-rise called The Brownstone. As we await the elevator in the lobby, Owen talks up The Brownstone’s reputation, its great service, the convenient garage-people love it. That’s when the door opens to reveal all four sides of the elevator covered in protective burlap.
“Oh, isn’t that nice!” Owen exclaims, and then instantly recovers. “You see, it’s a small building, and the owners didn’t want to take up extra space with a freight elevator. This building is very intimate.”
Upstairs, Owen does anything but stand around quietly. She does a better sales job than the curiously silent building agent. A prosaic west-facing window is “what we call sunset views.” Low ceilings in the bedroom? Look at the closets, the floor. “Isn’t it grand? It’s as big as a living room!”
The client is underwhelmed. Another high-rise down the street is only slightly more promising. We proceed to the third location, where the listings agent has yet to appear. Owen, irked, tries tracking her down on her cell phone. She gets the keys from the doorman, even as she raises an appalled eyebrow. “This is something I never do-leave keys!”
We proceed upstairs. The apartment is a duplex, with a killer terrace over the building’s garage. There is a terrific new kitchen. A plasma TV the size of the Cubs scoreboard above the fireplace. A burbling fountain on the terrace. The apartment is going for $780,000. It has been on the market for nine days. Owen herself seems impressed: “Isn’t it special!” But the client is not opening her checkbook. Mostly she is worried that a terrace leak will ruin the garage roof, and she will end up paying.
Outside, Owen hails a cab. “This is the shortest ride you’ll ever have,” she tells the driver, directing him two blocks east to 1212 North Lake Shore Drive.
It is here that I begin to discern a scheme in the afternoon’s viewing. “A little over your price range,” Owen admits of the $1.125-million condo on the 34th floor. “But I thought I’d show you what’s out there.”
We started low and bland. We moved into more interesting territory. Now Owen delivers the knockout punch. Two giant ceramic Great Danes greet our entry. There are Greek columns in the hall. Wild fabrics cover the dining room chairs. A full-length forties photograph of the owner as a stunning fashion model dominates one wall. The woman is very big in interior design, offers Owen, and the client is hooked. Of course it is out of her price range. For now.
And that’s OK. The unspoken agenda here is to get the client comfortable enough to put her own condo up for sale. Owen, of course, will do the exclusive honors. She’s already got a Tuesday open house circled on her calendar.
Agent open houses are the events staged by sellers in which other agents, mostly buyers’ agents, come by to check out a property en masse. By industry consensus, they are always on Tuesdays. Thus, not long after the Brownstone tour, Owen is camped out in the widow’s condo, a unique duplex on West Eugenie Street listed for $669,000. Admit-tedly, the price tag is well below Owen’s usual floor. But in a soft market for multimillion-dollar homes, Owen is willing to take on a high-six-figure property. And, as the owner’s buying agent, she will get a piece of that commission.
The Eugenie Street condo comes with a front patio and garage parking-literally out the back door-plus pool amenities. Every-thing is new but the hall bath. “It’s good to save something for the buyer to do,” says Owen in the condo’s kitchen, where several platters of catered salads and chicken kebabs await on granite countertops. Owen, incidentally, claims to have been the first to serve food at an open house. “Now they all do,” she says cheerfully. If lunch isn’t a sufficient draw, she has a fistful of $25 gift certificates to Bistrot Zinc. She is in a spirited mood today. She just sold a fabulous condo on West Fullerton Parkway.
She is dressed this morning in a striking outfit that she spotted on a 21-year-old colleague at the Sudler gala. “Would you mind if I bought the same dress?” she dutifully asked before heading for Neiman Marcus.
“Don’t you look snazzy!” says the first
woman in the door. “You’re so nice and thin!”
“It’s the suit,” says Owen, pleased.
“You always look thin. Have you lost weight?”
“Maybe a few pounds. You look beautiful. As always.”
Owen doesn’t want me to get the wrong impression. These open houses are fun, but they are 5 percent of what she does. She was up until midnight last night doing paperwork. Same the night before. She does own up to having lost weight-though not the way she would want. She had an allergic reaction after eating a shrimp salad at a neighborhood restaurant and almost died. Since then she has been “paranoid” about what she eats. No shellfish. No bread, pasta, or rice; she’s on the “white diet.”
The brokers troop in; they tour, they have lunch, they poke through closets, they ooh and ah. Owen gives each a Bistrot Zinc certificate and the same upbeat tips: “Did you see the granite fireplace? It’s almost like marble!” and “Don’t miss the gorgeous floors upstairs-they’re mosaic!”
Suddenly, in walks Victoria Jones, the agent for Linda the lawyer, who was considering 1924 Dayton. Linda loved the house, Jones reports. It’s the construction that’s giving her second thoughts. Now she is thinking of building. But Jones, meanwhile, is interested in this Eugenie Street condo-for herself!
At 1:30, Owen closes up shop. It was a good turnout; the salad is almost gone. She got a great lead on a client looking for a three-bedroom. Another broker taught her how to pull up the Multiple Listing Service inventory on her BlackBerry-and she heard about someone who might be interested in 1924 Dayton.
Out on the street, I ask why the family that built that fabulous house is selling so soon. Owen hesitates, then drops her voice: “They got hooked on the suburbs. The kids probably rolled around in someone’s grass.” Owen, of course, never tells potential buyers why an owner is selling. “It’s none of their business. Besides, then they think, ‘Hmm, maybe we should move to the suburbs.'”
Owen herself wouldn’t think of it. She works in the city. She and Rodger have never owned a second home, not even a cottage in Michigan. All that cooking. The commuting. Who has time? She checks her watch. She glances toward Wells Street. Then she shoots up her hand for a taxi.