You can see history in every corner of Judy Zeder’s five-bedroom Coral Gables house. In its 19th century-style Dade County pine wood frame, which she has lovingly preserved. In the screened porches that surround the entire house, a throwback to old Florida days, when air conditioning was a distant dream. In the lush greenery on the one-acre property, a legacy of famed botanist Dr. David Fairchild, who planted in this vicinity. In so many ways the home is an iconic piece of Miami land, drenched in South Florida’s past, a perfect accouterment for the queen of Miami luxury real estate.
Yet, it’s not quite what you’d expect. After all, in 2010 Zeder was ranked Miami-Dade’s top real estate agent, with $83 million in sales, most of which came from the sale of properties worth more than $1 million. A bona fide luxury diva, you could imagine her in a more extravagant, more over-the-top, more—well—Miami home. “But my style is understated,” Zeder said. “I like things to be elegant but still comfortable.” And while both she and the house are far from being simple—it’s 7,000 square feet of impeccably appointed space—they are both most definitely well-grounded. The family room is designed to be lived in and cozy, with fluffy couches and cushions safe for her two grandchildren, Jack and Brooke, whom she babysits on most weekends. The kitchen, with pristine white cabinets and carrara marble counters, is one that’s clearly used frequently by the cook she relies on most—herself. “At least four times a week,” says the Detroit native, who moved to Miami in the mid 1970s. “I make dinner for my husband and myself and for any of the kids who happens to be around.” Married for 34 years to Jon, an attorney, whom she met on the second blind date she ever went on (“The first was a disaster. The second was a homerun!”), she has three children, Nathan and Kara, who work with her at the agency, and Evan, an entrepreneur in New York. Zeder invited Indulge to spend the day with the clan at the house and talked to us about the art of selling Miami, her first job in real estate and the lessons she’s learned along the way. I hear this house has quite a colorful history? Yes, the original structure was built in the late 1800s. It was made into a foreman’s house during the coontie starch era in Miami, which was the city’s first industry. And this whole area was later planted by Dr. Fairchild.
When did you buy it?
Actually, my husband bought it before we were married. It was a one-bedroom, one-bathroom at that time. That was some 40 years ago.
So he must have gotten quite a deal?
I suppose he did. But whatever it was then, he’s paid for it over and over again. It wasn’t a deal when we were done. It went from being 3,000 square feet to 7,000 square feet now. But it’s okay, we love it.
What changes have you made to it over time?
Shortly after we were married, I was pregnant with Nathan, my first son, so we needed another bedroom and another bathroom. We did some minor renovations at the time. A number of years later, we added two more bedrooms and three bathrooms. We kept adding but always preserving the architectural integrity of the house. I wasn’t ever trying to make the old house a new house. I was trying to make the old house what it needed to be.
What did you most love about the house?
Its simplicity. Architecturally, even though it was just a simple wood-framed Dade county pine house, the space and the light were great. I loved that it was on a little over an acre of land, with all these majestic trees surrounding it. Also, it was completely wrapped in screen porches. Even now, we’ve kept those porches because we love them so much.
Did you ever consider selling it and upgrading?
Four or five years ago, we went out and looked at other homes and thought we might buy. But I thought to myself, if I could build a house from scratch, I would build it just like this one. So we decided to stay.
It looks like a great house for entertaining.
Yes, and we entertain all the time. I cook a lot. My husband usually comes home and asks, how many people are coming for dinner? And I’ll say, a few. And he’ll say, does that mean three or thirty?
It’s also pretty unpretentious, considering it belongs to one of Miami’s most successful luxury real estate agents.
It’s not in your face. I’ve always lived my life thinking you don’t need to be the flashiest person around. Plus, I just want everybody to be comfortable in my home.
What’s your favorite spot in the house?
I love the family room. We use it the most. Also, the small room off of our bedroom. It’s a little sitting area where I read.
You mentioned being an avid cook? What’s your favorite meal to make?
Anything Italian. I’m not Italian, but I love Italian food. I make an all-day meat sauce that’s great. With the veal and pork and rib roast. It’s a whole project.
How did you learn to make it?
Truth? In college I dated an Italian guy and I guess his mother thought I was going to marry him, so she insisted I learn to make the meat sauce. Ultimately, I got rid of the boyfriend and kept the recipe. I kept the better half.
When you were growing up in Detroit, what did you want be?
I thought I wanted to be a Montessori teacher and I was planning to go to graduate school. Then, before school was supposed to start, I flew to meet my parents, who were vacationing in Puerto Rico. On the plane, I happened to sit next to a man who was a captain for Delta Airlines. And he said, “Delta’s hiring. You should apply.” I thought it sounded really interesting, so I did. And I became a flight attendant for Delta in 1975. My dad was not happy about it at all, but what an experience flying was back then. We served meals on china. People dressed up.
What was your first real estate job?
It was 20 years ago and I worked with an agent named Audrey Ross. I had been very involved in the community, sat on a lot of boards, chaired a lot of galas, so I knew a lot of people. I was constantly referring people to other people, and someone finally said I should go into real estate with all these relationships. I’d never thought of it, but I tried it.
What was your first big sale?
That’s an interesting question because probably one of my largest sales began as one of my smallest ones. It was a client who, at the time, was buying something very small. I had no real knowledge of who they were. The client turned out, 20 years later, to be one of my best clients because of the multiple properties they’ve bought and sold and the people they’ve referred to us through the years.
What did that teach you?
That everybody’s dollars are equally important. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with somebody who’s calling about an $800-a-month rental or an $8 million listing. Everybody deserves the same service.
What do you think makes you so successful?
I believe in not just selling a property but Miami itself. I think people need to feel like they belong. So I make a point of introducing them to others, connecting them. If they’ve just moved here from another city and they have kids in school and they don’t know anyone else, I’ll have them over to the house and invite friends whose kids go to the school. If they’re into the arts, I’ll make sure to connect them to the people I know. I’ll help them get involved.
What frustrates you?
When I’m working with somebody and they decide they don’t want to work with me anymore. I still take that personally. I feel like I’ve somehow let them down. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does...
What do you want to pass on to your kids?
I want my kids to understand the importance of being kind. Because I think kindness brings empathy, understanding and the things you need to be successful. When they were growing up I always told them: The only job you have in life is to make sure you’re the kindest person in the room and that you’re always willing to stand up and defend someone.
What’s it like working with your kids?
I love it. I don’t think it works for everybody but it works for our family. When we’re in a work environment they call me Judy. But the minute we leave the office, I’m Mom. I don’t want to be anything else. Just Mom.