‘You’re basically selling dreams to people’
Realtor John Ludwig – who brings his home-selling expertise to ‘the designer within’ – explains how a good eye for design is crucial to his trade.
By Mark Cox
How did you get started in in the home-selling business?
I’ve been a realtor for around 20 years now. My mom first talked me into getting a real estate license when I was fresh out of college back in 1997, and I jumped right in and started selling places. Unlike most Denver realtors, I don’t focus on any particular neighorhood or niche market – most of my clients come from referrals or word of mouth, and I’m happy to go anywhere in Denver. I represent both buyers and sellers, with a fifty-fifty split between houses and condos. So whether it’s a high-rise in the heart of downtown or a cabin-style home in the foothills outside the city, I’ll consider taking it on.
How do you delicately tell people that their beloved home needs a major design upgrade in order to become saleable?
I just stride in wearing my interior design tiara and waving my decorating magic wand, and let them know I’m there to help them. Yesterday, for example, I got a call from a client who wants me to go through every room and tell them exactly what to do, and that’s fine. Helping people lay out their homes for selling is absolutely my favorite part of the job. Just now, I’m selling an old – well, old for Denver – home that has Bradbury and Bradbury wallpaper everywhere and dark, ornate furnishings throughout. There’s a slightly intense, Victorian feeling to it – it feels more mausoleum than home, to be honest – so I’ll be implementing some major design changes to get it into a saleable condition.
How do you manage to get a property looking its very best?
There are so many things you have to do! Before even starting, you need to tell people to take down their personal photos, their kid’s drawings on the refrigerator, and any political or even offensive (it happens!) wall-hangings. And then you start planning out the best look that will secure a sale. Getting the house looking just right is a really big deal. I even have a collection of fake plants at hand for emergencies, which we use to cover up ugly features that can’t be physically removed.
What’s your favorite part of the home-selling process?
I’m a complete nut for home photography, and usually schedule a whole day so I can get everything just right. I hire a photographer (plus a drone) for the whole day, then we return in the evening to capture some more atmospheric shots. I take care of every last detail – meticulously arranging place-settings on the patio furniture, for example – because you have to grab every chance to show a place’s lifestyle potential.
Elaborate on that point.
Sure. Suppose a starter home has a bad-ass back yard: You can’t simply leave it at that – you need to bring out the full potential of that space for viewers. Now, you can guess that many potential buyers for a starter place might be condo residents who are getting some outdoor space for the first time. And this being Colorado, there’s a good chance they’ll also own a dog and might be interested in growing their own produce. So, if you put out some nice garden furniture and zucchini plants and chunky dog toys, you’re suddenly bringing to life a future that many of these buyers have already imagined for themselves. Remember: As a realtor, you’re not only selling bricks and mortar – you’re often building someone’s dreams. You have to sprinkle in a little bit of magic dust, if you want to quickly reel in a buyer.
It almost sounds like you’re a secret wannabe interior designer…
Absolutely! That’s why I thought doing ‘the designer within’ would be so cool. There’s a definite emotional connection that Americans make when they choose a house, and to some extent you’re selling potential buyers an idealised idea of what they want their lives to look like. So, you first need to ask yourself: ‘What kind of person would buy this place?’ And then you have to explore whether the home has the right furnishings and features that such a person would want – and if not, you set about trying to provide it.
Do you ever turn up to find houses in a real mess?
That’s not really a problem. I largely work with people who take a real pride in their homes and know that they have saleable properties.
Is that because you’re sought out by the ‘right’ kind of clients?
I work for Sothebys, which has a real reputation for luxury. Honestly, my clients have usually been doing a lot of preparation work before I even meet them. It’s weird, given that I am technically serving them, but they are often kind of nervous when I first go round: I guess they don’t want to disappoint the ‘expert’. Plus, I’m the stereotypical gay realtor – quite fussy and exacting – which also adds to the pressure, I suppose. Sometimes, they have had their house cleaned twice before I even step through the door.
What was your experience like as a judge on ‘the designer within’?
It was kind of a trip. That was the first time I’d done any TV stuff but I watch a lot of reality-based shows with judges, so it was great fun to actually be part of one. The main thing, I guess, is that I really liked the concept of the show – I just thought it was awesome and such an original idea. I mean, how often do you get a chance to hand over actual real estate – genuine homes! – so a group of interior designers can express their creative selves. Even on the bigger network home-based shows, design contestants are generally working in a studio set. So it was a super-unique situation and a great way to feature all these new ideas by (mostly) young designers looking to establish themselves.
Was the judging process difficult?
For me, it really wasn’t because I felt Lindsay was the clear winner. However, I found the initial design board stage pretty tough, and had to lean quite heavily on the other two judges – who are design experts – for support. I found that part very challenging – to have to make such a big decision without seeing more of each contestant’s work than just some designs on a tiny board. But apparently, that’s how the interior design industry actually works so it was completely authentic and true to life.
Finally: do people think interior design is easier than it really is?
Yes, 100 per cent. Like a lot of incredibly difficult things, it often looks easy when someone else does it well. For example, I can watch Roger Federer play tennis superbly and say, ‘Well, that looks simple enough’. But then I step on a tennis court and it’s a completely different story. The fact is, highly skilled people can make furnishing a home look straightforward because they’re very talented, but planning and executing good interior design is extremely tough.