YouTubers Are Lifting The Veil on America’s Most Expensive Homes
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YouTubers Are Lifting The Veil on America’s Most Expensive Homes

Real-estate vloggers are giving viewers an intimate look at massive mansions.

By Katherine Clarke
Fri, Apr 30, 2021 1:06pmGrey Clock 8 min

Enes Yilmazer has toured some of the most expensive homes in the world. He’s explored penthouses on New York’s Billionaires’ Row, palatial beach houses in Malibu, Calif., and waterfront mansions on Lake Tahoe. He has oohed and aahed over Central Park views, marble floors, infinity pools, retractable roofs and candy walls and had a front row seat to an explosion of eight- and nine-figure real-estate listings across the country.

Mr. Yilmazer, 31, isn’t a wealthy buyer, nor is he currently a real-estate agent. Rather, he is one of a handful of real-estate YouTubers, amateur video hosts and producers, who are bringing regular people, via their laptops or cell phones, inside the mansions of the megarich. With more than 820,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, Mr. Yilmazer’s videos rack up millions of views and inspire tens of thousands of comments.

“Imagine forgetting something on your way out and having to go back and walk 5-6 business days to get it,” wrote one incredulous commenter on Mr. Yilmazer’s recent video about a sprawling $38 million estate in the pricey Calabasas area of Los Angeles. “How many people would it take to clean this place!!” said another about a $50 million Bel Air chateau.

In some ways, real-estate YouTubers like Mr. Yilmazer are providing today’s answer to the MTV Cribs phenomenon of the early 2000s, offering the masses a rare glimpse at how the 0.1% really live. But rather than getting a peak through the eyes of a movie star or a suave celebrity real-estate agent, like on shows such as Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” they’re seeing these houses through the eyes of a regular guy just like them.

Two years ago, Mr. Yilmazer and his longtime friend Michael Ayers started the channel with just a handheld camera, filming any house a high-end real-estate agent would let them into, he said.

Now, as they grow more sophisticated with their production, YouTubers like Mr. Yilmazer are shaking up how high-end real estate is sold in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami. They are making YouTube, the Google-owned video website, an increasingly important marketing channel for even the most privacy-obsessed homesellers and their real-estate agents. That’s been particularly evident over the past year as the Covid pandemic reduced the number of buyers willing to tour homes in person.

“Since Covid, people aren’t out and about the same way,” said Samantha Sax, chief marketing officer of Pontiac Land US, one of the developers of 53 West 53, a luxury skyscraper on New York’s Billionaires’ Row that Mr. Yilmazer recently featured on his channel. “They want to see things from their phone and computer more than they ever have before.”

The success of these real-estate channels has led to a rush of new copycat channels, some of which merge real-estate content with videos about designer cars, watches and get-rich schemes. It’s also spurred a boom in the number of agents trying to create their own video content, which can be hit or miss.

While some agents, like Ryan Serhant of “Million Dollar Listing New York,” have quickly become YouTube stars thanks in part to their television fame and big personalities, not all big-ticket agents were created with a lights-camera-action personality. Many come off as stiff and overly salesy to a YouTube audience, Mr. Yilmazer said. His own style is laid back and informational as he methodically walks viewers through all the features of each house.

Mr. Serhant said he tries to help members of his own team at his firm Serhant to be more natural on screen, with improv classes and on-camera training.

“There’s no specific personality that works well in front of the camera but you have to have one,” he said.

As the real-estate YouTube space becomes increasingly popular, these YouTubers are lining their pockets.

Mr. Yilmazer said he is bringing in between $50,000 and $100,000 a month in revenue from his YouTube channel in ad revenue alone, putting him on track to bring in more than $1 million this year if the growth of his channel continues at its current pace. Those are just the revenues provided by YouTube for allowing their automated ads to stream on the channel without any effort from Mr. Yilmazer’s own small team. On top of that, he and his team can make money from dedicated sponsorships—Mr. Yilmazer will personally feature a particular company’s brand in his videos for a fee that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars— and the money real-estate agents offer him to feature their listings on his channel. He said he often won’t charge if a property is particularly spectacular and will drive viewership to his channel. If a property is less impressive, he charges a fee, which typically runs into the five figures.

Mr. Yilmazer said he pays three videographers to shoot with him and production can run him between $5,000 and $15,000 per video. There are other expenses, too. He has invested around $25,000 in a drone set up, for instance.

Erik Conover, 31, a competing real-estate YouTuber with nearly 1.6 million subscribers on his channel, said he typically charges a rate in the tens of thousands of dollars to feature a company’s brand in his videos in what he calls a “45- to 50-second integration.” When he chooses to charge an agent to feature their property, it can cost them in the low five figures. He said he typically brings in between $10,000 and $30,000 a month in revenue from ads provided by YouTube.

He said that his audience, 25- to 35-years-olds in big cities around the world, is desirable to advertisers, but he believes his videos also drum up potential buyers for the luxurious homes he has featured on the channel. Sometimes, they refer videos to their wealthy parents, he said.

Still, not everyone is sold on letting YouTubers have free rein in their properties, since some agents believe that prospective buyers would prefer that their future homes not be splashed all over the internet.

“A lot of sellers at a very high level want to maintain some semblance of privacy,” said Alexander Ali, founder of the Society Group, a real-estate public relations firm that advises agents across the country. “Our buyers would not necessarily want everyone seeing their bedrooms and the overall layout of the home from a security perspective. You have to hold stuff back.”

Sometimes sellers don’t appreciate their homes being used as bait for advertisers, especially when those advertisers don’t reflect the kind of high-culture vibes they’re trying to give off. One marketing professional said he had an agent complain about allowing a YouTuber film in his trophy New York apartment, only to see images of the opulent apartment juxtaposed against crude advertisements for a company specializing in “manscaping” in the resulting video.

Skeptics also question whether YouTube videos actually sell these homes, since most of the viewers are watching voyeuristically and can’t personally afford the properties. Mr. Covonver and Mr. Yilmazer admit it’s likely that only a very small percentage of their viewership has the necessary net worth to purchase. But Mr. Conover said those viewers do exist, citing first-hand experience. Once, while running on a treadmill at his local Equinox gym, he had a stranger approach him about a video he had filmed in a penthouse at Walker Tower, an Art Deco building in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood.

“He said, ‘You know I purchased an apartment in that building based on your tour,’ ” Mr. Conover recalled, noting that the apartment the man bought was priced around $25 million. “That was the moment where I was like, ‘Okay, this is very real.’ ”

Both Mr. Yilmazer and Mr. Conover are entirely self taught in videography, editing and filmmaking and their videos started out rocky.

Mr. Yilmazer, who is originally from Turkey, was a professional windsurfer with a scholarship at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi before investing in house flipping with the proceeds of his surfing sponsorships. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2018, spurred by a dream, fueled by reality shows on Bravo, of “palm trees, nice cars and beautiful hillside homes,” he got his real-estate license. His career as a broker never really took off. Instead, as he was touring other agents’ trophy listings at open houses, he thought about how much others would love to see inside these extravagant properties. The idea for a YouTube channel was born.

“I was going to brokers’ open houses and seeing all these incredible homes,” he said. “I’m like, ‘This is crazy. I’m in a city where literally the rest of the world aspires to come to and I’m touring $200 million worth of real estate on a regular Tuesday. There’s something here. Why is no one is making any kind of a YouTube channel out of this?’ ”

He quickly called his friend Mr. Ayers and asked him to move to L.A., where the two of them began attending the open houses together, with a GoPro in hand, and asking agents to let them film. Initially, Mr. Yilmazer thought the channel might drive would-be buyers to use his services as an agent.

It took months for the channel to build momentum and generate revenue, but soon it grabbed his focus from actually selling real estate, he said. Mr. Ayers slept on his couch during the early days of the project. Over time, the videos evolved to be more professional. Mr. Yilmazer got more informed about each house and dedicated whole videos to just one property rather than showcasing a hodgepodge of houses around town in each episode. He also made videos longer form, since he said the YouTube algorithm favors longer-form content and increases his chances of being featured on viewers’ home screens.

Mr. Conover, who still edits all his videos, said he remains wowed by most of the houses he sees. A graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, he discovered YouTube after doing a bunch of odd jobs in New York, such as manager at Abercrombie & Fitch, fitness instructor, and lifeguard at the Gansevoort Hotel pool.

“I don’t come from wealth. I grew up in a 900-square-foot two-bedroom house in a town called Absecon, N.J., so for me every time I step into a property like that, it’s surreal,” he said. “I was essentially broke when I started my YouTube channel and I was filming it on an iPhone editing with iMovie.”

His situation has changed dramatically. He recently allowed his viewers in on his personal search for a home, scoping out apartments in Soho and Tribeca priced at as much as $10,000 a month.

Mr. Conover said he doesn’t think it would be possible for newcomers to replicate his success now that the business has matured, unless they had a unique idea. “You need high-quality cameras and proper editing,” he said.

YouTubers also have to tread carefully when it comes to biting the hand that feeds them luxury homes to film. Mr. Conover was having so much success with his channel over the past year that he was approached by a New York real-estate firm Nest Seekers International, which wanted him to get his real-estate license and become an agent. At the time, Mr. Serhant, the “Million Dollar Listing New York” star, had moved on from Nest Seekers to start his own company and the brokerage sought an agent who could replicate his YouTube following.

“We wanted to remain active in that space,” said Eddie Shapiro, the chief executive of Nest Seekers, who said he wants his firm to be on top of the online trends. “It’s all about being progressive. It’s like, are people buying $100 million homes on TikTok? I don’t know that yet but I don’t want to miss that boat if it comes.”

Now that he is an agent on the side, Mr. Conover said a small number of New York agents don’t want him to film their listings—they view him as competition. He said he doesn’t mind so much since he thinks there are plenty of exciting properties for him to feature elsewhere. For those agents he is working with in New York, he assures them that he’s a YouTuber first and an agent second.

Mr. Yilmazer recently gave up his license because he felt it was limiting the access he could get to the biggest listings. He said he believes the ceiling on his YouTube career is higher. “If you have a listing on the best sites like Redfin, Zillow at best maybe you get 30,000 or 40,000 clicks,” he said. “We’re getting two to three million people to click on our videos and I believe we can scale that to 10 times bigger than what it is right now. That is, to me, that’s incredible.”

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 29, 2021


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”