Miami-based landscape designer Fernando Wong of Fernando Wong Outdoor Living Design, Inc., and his partner in business and life, Tim Johnson, have designed gardens for houses and condominium buildings from South Florida to Southampton, New York. Most recently, they collaborated with Richard Meier on the nine-acre oceanside gardens at the Four Seasons Hotel at Surf Club in Surfside, Florida.
As far as trends in garden design, Mr. Johnson said “more and more, people want the outside of their homes to be an extension of the inside. People want outdoor rooms, elaborate outdoor kitchens and pool cabanas, and we’re seeing everything from outdoor pizza ovens to movie screens. People are taking their media rooms/family rooms and moving them outside.”
We caught up with the Mr. Wong (who was born in Panama) and Mr. Johnson, who is American, to find out more about what luxury means in terms of landscaping, the popularity of the resort-like pool in private properties, and much more.
Mansion Global: Describe your dream property.
Fernando Wong: We have a property that’s up in the mountains, in Cerro Azul, Panama, and it doesn’t have electricity. I really love the view and hope to build a family compound. It’s very rustic, and every time I go there I feel calm and serene.
MG: Do you have a real estate property that got away?
Tim Johnson: There was an apartment in Palm Beach, Florida, in a pink stucco building, and it had 15-foot cathedral ceilings. The kitchen was in a converted closet; it was so impractical but cool and beautiful. We lost it.
MG: What does luxury mean to you?
TJ: For landscaping, luxury is about being able to have a property that is an oasis and offers complete privacy. It’s as if you’re on your own island.
FW: For us, it’s also about location. We drive and travel so much, so for us not to have to deal with traffic is a luxury. We live in Palm Beach now, so we park the car and never move when we’re home. We walk to the beach and restaurants. We have apartments in Miami Beach and Palm Beach and can walk in both places; that’s luxury to us.
MG: What area do you think is the next hub for luxury properties?
TJ: It’s still about Florida, since it has no state income tax. People are still coming from New York, California, and from Latin America, Russia and Europe, trying to get their money into Miami… and there are all the baby boomers too. Overall it’s an incredibly strong market. All over Florida, there’s a lot of building going on. Wellington, which is right near West Palm Beach, is a booming area. It’s horse country.
MG: What’s the biggest surprise in the luxury real estate market now?
TJ:: What we’re seeing is that things have slowed down at the high end and low end of luxury, but things in the middle are selling. People don’t want to have to do a lot to the houses they buy, so houses that are turn-key sell faster. And there are a lot of spec homes on the market, especially in Palm Beach and Miami.
MG: What’s your favorite part of your home?
TJ: In Miami Beach, we’re on the 27th floor, and can see the ocean and Biscayne Bay and Downtown Miami. So that’s amazing. In both properties, our bedrooms are our sanctuaries. We put a lot of money into those.
MG: What best describes the theme to your home and why?
TJ: In Miami Beach, we have varied shades of blue. In Palm Beach, we’ve wallpapered every room. Dark blue is our thing. In Miami, we’re surrounded by water so it makes sense. And blue is a calming color.
MG: What’s the most valuable thing in your home?
TJ: We try not to get wrapped up in material things. But we do have a lot of art, especially from Venezuelan artists. We also have super expensive sheets. We practically needed to take out a mortgage to get those sheets.
MG: What’s the most valuable amenity to have in a home right now?
TJ: There’s a lot more emphasis on the outside. People come to us and say they want a resort-style pool and spa area. Ten years ago people would just ask for a pool and that would be it. Now they want a lot more.
MG: What’s your best piece of real estate advice?
TJ: Buy something and sell it after five years, because that’s when the value goes up, and when things start becoming worn and need to be replaced.
FW: Invest in landscaping. You need to see it as part of your joy to come back home to. Look at it as ongoing upkeep and invest in maintenance.
TJ: Landscaping really does make a home. We’ve had some ugly houses that we’ve been able to help people sell with landscaping. We say that the house is the picture and the landscaping is the frame. It’s amazing what landscaping can cover up, and it can make a beautiful house look even better. After kitchens, bathrooms and closets, landscaping is key in getting your money back on a property.
MG: What’s going on in the news that will have the biggest impact on the luxury real estate market?
TJ: The Dow hitting 20,000 points. Whatever you think of the new U.S. administration, from a regulatory and tax perspective, it’s very business friendly. There are likely to be lower taxes and less regulation, so the luxury market could have a boom.
MG: What is the best area now for investing in luxury properties?
TJ: Oceanfront property in Panama; it’s still affordable. Costa Rica, too. Many people are priced out in Florida, but in Latin America it’s still affordable.
MG: What area currently has the best resale value?
TJ: Waterfront properties are still very popular; it’s not like they’re making any more of it. We were just at a friend’s at Rosemary Beach in the Panhandle of Florida, and their neighbor sold a beachfront house for $14 million. She bought the lot for $450,000 back in 1997.
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