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Drones Lift L.A.’s Luxury Real Estate Market for Showbiz Celebs and Execs

Technology forever changes the way stars sell and buy their homes

This isn’t your father’s real estate market.

Today’s luxury home selling-and-buying trade deploys increasingly high-tech and digitally enhanced tools, including — of all things — drones.

To meet buyer demand and stay competitive, top luxury real estate agents no longer just rely on analog presentations. Their new digital listings often feature rich media created via drones equipped with HD cameras, GIS (geographic information system) mapping and sophisticated 3D imaging. And while an Oscar winner isn’t always available to narrate a sales pitch — as is the case in the promo for Jane Fonda’s Forked Lightning Ranch in New Mexico, which features the actress’s nuanced voiceover — sleekly produced shorts are essential to market megabucks properties and their presumed lifestyle.

“More and more people start their search on the Internet,” says Beverly Hills-based Joyce Rey of Coldwell Banker Previews Intl. Even the wealthiest buyers are now online (although someone else presumably does the initial search).

Rey is representing the U.S.’s most expensive residence on the market: Palazzo di Amore. Listed at $195 million, the 53,000-sq.-ft., Mediterranean-style villa above Beverly Hills has 12 bedrooms and 23 bathrooms on 25 ridgetop acres with vineyards. Amenities are as vast as the listing price: They include a 10,000-bottle wine cellar, a DJ-ready disco and parking for 150 vehicles.

Rey commissioned a lifestyle video featuring comely actors by the pool, quadcopter camera drone footage of the palatial rooms and helicopter-shot footage over the 128-foot-long reflecting pool. “When I started in this business 40 years ago, people didn’t even photograph their listings,” she recalls. “There was no publicity; marketing materials were restricted to classified line ads, and an international buyer was a rarity. It’s a very different world, and expectations have changed dramatically.”

Mike Swan, managing broker and owner of the Swan Land Co. in Bozeman, Mont., is representing Fonda’s $19.5 million, 2,300-acre property outside Santa Fe. “Buyers of high-end, high-profile properties are looking for information instantaneously,” he says. “The days of putting things in the mail are long gone. The ability to transfer large quantities of data to buyers has really revolutionized what we do. Extensive details on a property — including satellite mapping — can now be provided at once, streamlining the process.

“We have to stay at the same pace as buyers,” Swan adds.

When presenting large ranches and estates, drone-shot footage is more than a vanity project: It presents a virtual walk-through. Accurate representation increases buyer confidence — there is no element of surprise for high-net-worth buyers on tight timelines. And the seller’s agent is not wasting time.

“Global is the new local for high-end properties,” says Santiago Arana of the Agency in Beverly Hills. “We’re always looking for that extra thing to differentiate the property and to showcase its features.” For a current ultramodern listing, Arana sought out a specialized photographer to capture underwater angles.

Driving camera drones through a house to capture closer and higher angles is now a must, as moving images attract more interest than static ones. “Drone technology makes them more compelling and easier to do,” says Rick Moeser of Christie’s Intl. Real Estate, Palm Beach, Fla. The firm utilizes drones “only for more special properties that would benefit from video. It has to fit the mold and be an important property with a story to tell,” says Moeser, who is co-representing Mel Gibson’s 500-acre retreat, Playa Barrigona on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, an ocean-view property surrounded by lush jungles and offered at $29.75 million.

Real estate apps (Zillow, Trulia, Redfin or brokerage firms’ dedicated apps) mean that the former randomness of property search is eliminated. Mobile technology enables shopping for real estate at any time, from anywhere. The Agency’s app allows Arana to live-chat with potential buyers who click on his listing. Other apps, like Sign-N-Send and DocuSign, have digitized real estate transactions and closings — “a huge advance,” per Arana.

“It fits in with what most people are doing: You can buy almost anything online these days,” says West Los Angeles-based Alec Traub, senior agent for Redfin, both a real estate website and brokerage. The Redfin app, he says, “provides instant satisfaction and allows people who don’t have time or energy to dedicate to the process to enter search criteria and be notified every time a listing hits the MLS.” Notifications can be pushed to mobile devices. Recently, Redfin partnered with Matterport to provide high-resolution 3D video walkthroughs, inspired by Xbox Kinect technology.

Although video entices, in the end, most deals close after a buyer has visited in person. “You can’t replace getting on a property and personally experiencing it,” says Swan. “(A buyer) must touch and feel it.”

Digital technology may help seal the deal, but there must be an emotional connection. And no matter how fast the process is sped up, the Agency’s Arana reminds, “Clients still want customer service: It’s still a customer service business.”

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