Rich baby boomers don’t want to ever leave their master suites

Turns out, it’s hard to really use a 10,000-sq-ft mansion when your kids move out

by James Tarmy

Ten years ago, interior designer Rela Gleason faced a conundrum as she began to build her own house in Napa Valley, California.

“We had grown children and grandchildren, but they were only going to be there for a small amount of time,” Gleason says.

She and her husband wanted to have a house that could accommodate their whole, growing family. “But on the other hand,” she says, “we didn’t want to live in a big house and pass through a lot of empty rooms that felt lonely” when the family wasn’t there.

Her solution was to build a 10,000-sq-ft (929 sq m) house comprising multiple, detached pavilions. “We wanted big, soaring living spaces — I wanted a big family room so that when the family was there, we could all be together,” she says. “But we basically live in the master suite and the kitchen.”

Many affluent baby boomers have found themselves in a similar position: Their children are gone, but for whatever reason — a need to entertain on occasion, or simply an unwillingness to part with their belongings — they refuse to scale down and instead are increasingly taking refuge in elaborate master suites that serve as apartments within a much larger home.

Evolving Lifestyles

“We’re seeing an evolution of the way that people live,” says Michael Graves, a broker for Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, you’d go to your bedroom when you were going to sleep. But now the function of the master bedroom has changed where it’s a living space as well.”

In one US$11.8 million (RM46.96 million) townhouse on the Upper East Side that Graves co-represents with the broker Justin Rubinstein, the master suite takes up the entire top floor. “You can spend your entire evening there,” he says.

There’s no hard data on the prevalence of these suites or the ways people use them, so the information is anecdotal. But in speaking with top brokers across the country, the trend appears to transcend geography.

“I’ve been seeing it more and more,” says Jill Shore, a broker for Douglas Elliman in Aspen, Colorado. “It used to be, if you had a built-in refrigerator, that was a big deal.”

In one 12,191-sq-ft Aspen home Shore represents, an elevator goes straight from the garage to the master bedroom, which has its own office, gym, fridge, sink and coffee maker.

Shore has listed that house for US$25 million. “It used to be that you had to build a really great kitchen,” she says. “You still do, but you also have to build a really great master.”

“I’m thinking living rooms are the opposite of what they’re called, because no one lives in them anymore,” she continues. “People build cozy dens off the kitchen or master bedroom, because that’s where everyone gathers, while the living room collects dust.”

A Lifestyle Choice

This isn’t the first time giant master bedrooms have been in vogue: A US$4.65 million house in Boca Raton, Florida, built in the late 1980s, has a master suite that includes a bedroom, bathroom, office, family room, bar and gym — but brokers say it’s only recently that buyers have begun to specify that master suites resemble stand-alone apartments.

Today, people spending more than US$10 million for a house want “things like wet bars, drawing rooms, dressing rooms and oversized bathrooms” in master suites, Graves says. “Before,” he says, “people wouldn’t really expect those things.”

The master suite of a new, RM157.2m house in Southampton, New York (Source: Sargent Photography)

“It’s very lifestyle-driven,” says Tim Davis, a broker for Corcoran who’s based in New York’s Hamptons. “It’s a very European way of living, where they’re shutting off part of the house.”

Davis, who renovated his own home to create a master suite after his children left for college (“It enables us to have this separate apartment that’s self-contained”), says many of the luxury homebuyers in the Hamptons “haven’t grown up with wealth, and some don’t know how to live that way”.

When they see giant master suites at hotels or “spend enormous amounts of money renting villas or resorts, they’ve figured out that’s how people want to live, and they say: “Why can’t I do that and spoil myself?” Davis says.

Developers, he says, have taken note. “We advise our developer clients (who are building homes on spec) to build the master suite on the first floor,” he says. “Or, if it’s on the second floor, then they should make sure there’s an elevator that goes to the space.” One US$39.5 million new home in Southampton, New York, which Davis co-lists with broker Gary DePersia, has just that: A master suite with a sitting room and two bathrooms, which can be accessed by elevator.

It’s not just to accommodate an ageing, wealthy buyer pool, Davis explains; it might just be about “getting luggage into closets”.

Hard to Let Go

There’s a certain irony to the fact that baby boomers in giant houses have begun living in suites the size of a starter apartment in Brooklyn. It’s doubled by the fact that this is almost exclusively a feature used by the very wealthy.

But from the standpoint of Gleason, the Napa Valley homeowner, it’s understandable. “We really need very little, and we prefer more intimate spaces,” she says. “But when you come from a large residence — psychologically, it’s hard to give up the sense of living big.”

Even Gleason, though, has decided that her 10,000-sq-ft compound — designed specifically to accommodate two people or 20 — is too much to handle. She’s put it on the market with Ginger Martin of Sotheby’s International Realty for US$17 million.

“We’re 72 years old, and we know that this isn’t a property that’s going to (sell) overnight,” she says of the house, which was featured in Architectural Digest.

“When you get to be 80 years old, you don’t want to be living on 40 acres (16.18ha).” — Bloomberg