Perhaps it was the infrared cameras that recorded every move and facial twitch of guests approaching the 12,000-square-foot Omaha home.
Or maybe it was the mood lighting at 17 other entrances, the nine bathrooms, six remote-controlled fireplaces, five bedrooms or four oversized garages equipped with TVs and stereo sound.
Certainly all of the above features at a single 2.5-acre residential property was a tipoff that it could be one of the handful of Omaha area homes listed for around $3 million. Shortly after a recent invitation-only showing, a family extended an offer on the dwelling in the Legacy neighborhood near 168th Street and West Center Road. And while it's on the more extreme end of local luxury homes, the pending contract underscores a rebound in Omaha's high-end residential market, even as activity in the broader housing market has started to slip.
In October, the number of Omaha homes signed to a contract dropped by 4 percent compared with the same time period last year. Stretching back to January, sales are up 9 percent over the same 10 months in 2012, but that increase pales compared with the 50 percent jump in the $1 million-and-up category since 2012.
Records from three area county assessors' offices show that 22 home sales so far this year in that high-end, albeit small, market have surpassed the 2008 pre-recession level of 19 sales. Last year there were 15 single-family home sales in that price point.
Recent transactions in the uber-luxury category reveal another theme: Size isn't necessarily the crowning jewel.
Real estate agents say that wealthier homebuyers in Omaha are more concerned today than before with a casual, family feel. A quest for unique and quality amenities, as well as geographical setting, generally surpass demand for square footage.
“They want wide-open spaces that can be intimate, they want the warmth, they want to be able to entertain,” said Marty Hosking, the agent who listed the Legacy home that just went under contract.
Hosking, who until a year ago worked in the Washington, D.C., area, said he's learned that $3 million is the limit people will pay today for an existing Omaha house. That caliber of client, he said, wants to spend $500,000 to $1 million on top of the sales price to add their personal touch — or they would just as soon turn to building a new custom home.
Indeed, many are. At the wooded and scenic Sanctuary subdivision, where typical homes are in the $1 million to $3 million range, seven houses are under construction or in the design stages.
Two other west Omaha subdivisions, the Prairies and Windgate Ranch Estates, currently are being developed and will be occupied by custom houses valued up to about $1.5 million. Builders scooped up all those available lots in lotteries, and developers said there was not enough to meet the demand.
“People are getting their confidence back in a stabilizing economy,” said Jason Lanoha of Lanoha Development, which created the Sanctuary and the Prairies.
Whether it's a custom-built or existing house, homes in that top-dollar range share some common characteristics.
There's always granite, fine stone and tile — but more of it, and typically imported from other countries. There's state-of-the-art heating, air and security systems — but above and beyond even high efficiency.
Take the residence at 17275 Valley Dr. that Hosking, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Ambassador Real Estate, marketed for about 100 days before it was signed to a contract.
It has travertine flooring from Mexico, an Arte Nouveau fireplace from Paris and walnut wood throughout the main floor. It has reverse osmosis water filtering, instant hot water at all spouts, a five-camera color and infrared security system, hidden sound system and a thermostatic control for each room.
Deb Cizek, another Ambassador agent who specializes in luxury homes, echoed the sentiments of her builder husband who says that pricing a home per square foot is like pricing a car per pound. “Really, it depends on what is inside,” she said.
Special amenities and architectural design are probably the most important factors in determining value, said Cizek, followed by location and size.
Cizek pointed out a 7,200-square-foot home her team is listing for more than $2 million in the Westroads area. Although relatively small for a mansion, she said, “The lot is phenomenal, over-the-top gorgeous.”
While higher-end residences are selling, Cizek said, “They're going at discounted prices from what they were three or four years ago.”
Another interesting trend at that level, she said, is that unique furnishings often are negotiated into the high-ticket deal.
Sharon Marvin of NP Dodge Real Estate — who last year helped sell a mansion in Linden Estates for $3 million — said buyers in that league often want an island of entertainment, somewhere they and guests don't have to leave unless they want to. That means fancy amenities such as a swimming pool, waterfall and fire pit.
However, she said she has also noticed that since the Great Recession, luxury buyers have “re-evaluated priorities” and want plenty of family-friendly and casual space.
Especially in the $2 million-and-higher range, CBSHome's Cindy Forehead said, homes have movie theaters, swim-up bars, tennis courts. These are “smart” homes, she said, where residents can control security, heating and lighting by their iPad or cellphone.
Ask a builder, and they agree that architectural features set the cream of the crop apart from the rest.
It's the complexity factor, said Steve Huber of Curt Hofer and Associates. Things like curved walls, and tailoring a house around a unique lot and landscape.
More of his luxury home clients want places they can stay in longer, and that means wider hallways and elevators.
High-end homes increasingly “bring the outdoors in” by, for instance, continuing a stone theme from outside to inside and by separating indoor and outdoor entertainment areas only with huge glass sliding doors.
Tim Schaffer of Quality First Construction said that with the resurgence in the high-end market he's also seen more blurring of indoor and outdoor living. One client has him building a glass-enclosed room that will contain a wood stove and wood-beamed ceiling; another wants an indoor basketball court.
Quality materials and custom design are true marks of the million-dollar-and-over house, he said, citing an Aspen-style dwelling under construction that is highlighted with huge timbers, stained cedar siding, unique woodwork and stone inside and out.
At the Legacy mansion, Hosking emphasized unique features such as a hand-painted, Cathedral-like vaulted entry, textured Stucco walls and rooms inspired by the Boys Town Chapel and the Hearst Castle.
He walked visitors through the golf room and into a unique 3,000-square-foot finished area he calls the “dream” space. (The mom of the house was a dog agility trainer, and that was her work area.)
Yet all the while Hosking emphasized family-friendly aspects of the 10-year-old house in which four children grew up — including a screened-in sitting room with a fireplace and a BBQ grill that opens to a vast, secluded courtyard of specially selected trees, plants and a waterfall.
Hosking hired professional crews to shoot an aerial video of the grounds and to stage the home listed for $2.9 million. For certain marketing events, he had on hand a security team with high-tech cameras and equipment, a sign of valuable contents.
He told potential buyers, though, that nothing about the house was too “precious” to keep a family from feeling at home. “As big a house as it is, you feel warm.”