Architect Harry Seidler can barely hide his disdain for the term sub-penthouse. “Sub-penthouse is an absurd terminology. It’s a marketing piece of nonsense which implies that anything that is up in the air is a penthouse,” says the man behind some of Sydney’s most famous apartment buildings, including Horizon.
Historically, a penthouse is a separate “house-style” dwelling on the top of an apartment building.
Seidler warns that sub-penthouses are a “salesman’s catchphrase” that have little to do with the architectural or design merits of an apartment. “The majority of apartments being built are appalling it’s the fashion of the desperate trade of hawking apartments.”
Even some of the real estate agents selling these apartments agree with him or at least with his views about sub-penthouses.
Andrew Hoggett, director of Richardson & Wrench Elizabeth Bay, says sub-penthouses often have a poor reputation because many are “just standard-finish top-floor apartments”.
And agent Stewart Bunn, of Di Jones Real Estate, says: “In essence, they are a recent invention by developers to maximise marketability it just refers to apartments on the top floors and apportions more glamour to them.”
Bunn says the best example of a “true” penthouse that he has seen is in Selsdon, Macleay Street, Elizabeth Bay. “It’s a 1920s apartment block with a stunning French provincial-style cottage on the roof,” he says.
Macleay Regis also has a traditional penthouse. The penthouse’s original maid’s quarters have been turned into a separate apartment, which Bunn says has been marketed as a sub-penthouse. “That’s my idea of a true sub-penthouse. It’s not the penthouse, but it is distinct from all the other apartments in Macleay Regis. It had a good outdoor area and it’s on the roof.”
Nowadays, a sub-penthouse refers to the apartments on the floor or two floors immediately below the penthouse level.
Erle Cramer of Cramer Property Agents says there is a certain amount of licence taken with the word and that can create confusion in the market. “A sub-penthouse should be close to the very best but in a penthouse it would be even better. So in Republic 2, the penthouse has a bathroom that is also a steam room but the sub-penthouse doesn’t.
“The penthouse has limestone floors with underfloor heating throughout, while it’s only in the living areas of the sub-penthouses.”
Helen Wright, Multiplex’s marketing manager, says all Multiplex Living developments including King Street Wharf and the Manhattan hotel redevelopment in Elizabeth Bay have sub-penthouses and it is unfair to say they exist only to create a premium price bracket.
“We are responding to a demand from purchasers who are relocating from a large home,” she says. “These people want a larger and more luxurious apartment they have a lot of furniture and still want the size.”
In King Street Wharf, a three-bedroom sub-penthouse, with 131 square metres of interior floor space and a 26sqm deck, is priced at $1.995 million, while a standard three-bedroom apartment which is 131sqm with a 26sqm deck, is $1.595 million.
Developer Meriton coined the term sub-penthouse in the 1980s and early 1990s when selling large apartment blocks in the CBD.
“Meriton started it all with the top four levels of a building being called sub-penthouses,” Bunn says. “In Meriton, the schedule of finishes may be no different to other apartments, but you might have more space. People loved the idea. The first thing those owners would tell you when you walked into their apartment was that it was a sub-penthouse.”
Ross Kocass, Meriton’s marketing manager, admits Meriton started the sub-penthouse phenomenon but says it no longer markets them. “We took them off the market about four years ago,” he says.
“The rest of the building layouts and finishes have come up so much in the past 10 years that the word sub-penthouse doesn’t really apply. Nowadays penthouse finishes are only a little bit better than other apartments.
“So, for example, all the kitchens in Meriton apartments will have granite or something similar, while the penthouse will have a slightly better grade of granite. The facilities in all our apartments are sub-penthouse standard.”
A penthouse is naturally more expensive than a sub-penthouse. The top floor has less noise, better views and usually more outdoor space than the lower floors.
Cramer says he recently sold the penthouse in Republic 2 for $3.2 million but had to state that it was the “true penthouse” in the marketing campaign to make sure people didn’t mistake it for a sub-penthouse.
A sub-penthouse in Republic 2 is on the market for $2.5 million. In the Lumina development in East Sydney, the penthouse is $1.89 million, while the sub-penthouses start at $950,000. The most expensive sub-penthouse Cramer has sold was for $4 million in Top of the Town in Victoria Street, Kings Cross.
“The best sub-penthouses in the inner east are in the $1 million to $4 million price range,” he says. “A lot of [buyers] are coming from a home worth $3 million, so they can buy a great apartment and have money left over.”
Sub-penthouses are also attractive to the expat market Sydneysiders working overseas who can afford to pay US dollars or British pounds for an attractive apartment to move into when they return.
Cramer predicts there will be more and more penthouse-style apartments but fewer “true” penthouses.
“The penthouse market is extremely hard,” he says. “When you can get seven or eight apartments on each floor, you have to ask lots of money to make the penthouse viable. There is better return to have two sub-penthouses.”
Cramer says about half the sub-penthouses are sold off-the-plan. In contrast, the penthouse cannot be sold until the building is completed and it needs to be fitted out and marketed carefully to attract prestige buyers who can afford the multimillion-dollar price tags.
Ross Hayward and Grant Wilkinson insisted on living on the top floor but they didn’t necessarily want to pay a penthouse price. The pair bought one of the sub-penthouses in fashionable Republic 2 in 1999.
“We have only ever lived in apartments and this truly feels like a house it’s so open and we have 72 square metres of north-facing deck,” Hayward says.
“In our building, none of the sub-penthouses are the same. The bedrooms don’t have common walls, the view is very good and it’s the quietest place I’ve ever lived in Sydney.”
Hayward explains that sub-penthouses are for owner-occupiers who enjoy the benefits of apartment living. “It’s not really the type of apartment that you would buy to rent out.”
David and Heather Plaister bought their sub-penthouse in Lacey on Regent in 1997.
Their 186-square-metre apartment includes a 70-square-metre deck. The couple bought another apartment in the same building to run their business from.
“Our lifestyle does require a lot of hours so we needed to be close to my work and have ready access to the city,” David says. “We are a four-minute walk from Redfern station where every Sydney train stops every two minutes.”
The Plaisters spend their weekends at their home on the Central Coast, so it is important for them to be able to lock up and know the apartment is secure. “You wouldn’t get a house like this so close to the city unless you wanted to live in a terrace,” says Heather.
“To me, a sub-penthouse is a great alternative you get the level of finish to the extent of a penthouse without necessarily having the size.”
Both sets of owners say their apartments have risen in value substantially since they bought them.
“A good sub-penthouse is like any real estate; as long as there is demand for it, it will go up,” says Hayward.
The old-fashioned rules of real estate buying apply when choosing a sub-penthouse. It’s all about location, the quality of the building and the individual qualities of each unit.
Prospective sub-penthouse buyers should look for:
* A good-sized outdoor area of at least 25 square metres.
* A well-appointed kitchen with prestige appliances.
* Quality taps and bathroom finishes.
* A larger than standard floor plan of at least 120 square metres.
* Two or three bedrooms.
* A good view or aspect.
* Quality noise-proofing between apartments and well-planned common walls.
* Security parking for at least one car, preferably two.
* A building with good facilities such as a pool, gym and possibly a concierge.
Source: Stewart Bunn, Di Jones