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November 2008


REAL ESTATE

Deeds & Don'ts
By Lily Oliver
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How to Save $30 Million
There's been a price break at Dunellen Hall in Greenwich. The estate of the late Leona Helmsley has been discounted a cool $30 million, to $95 million, down from its initial—and record-setting—asking price of $125 million. Approach the 23,000-square-foot Jacobean mansion through iron gates; the driveway, lined with ornate light posts, opens to rolling lawns. Cruise past the columned pergola to the walled courtyard with a 70-foot marble reflecting pool with a three-tier fountain. The expansive property is set on 40 hilltop acres and includes a 70-foot outdoor reflecting pool, an indoor pool, solarium, handball court and a 47-foot reception hall. This substantial property is listed with David Ogilvy & Associates in Greenwich (203) 869-9866.

You'd think in the midst of the bleakest autumn since 1929, the real estate market would grind to a dead halt. In fact, September and October saw some notable sales as a few deep-pocketed buyers snapped up assets—Warren Buffett style—at eye-poppingly low prices, at least as compared to their prior price tags.

Granted, that a home sells is not really super news when the listing in question is auctioned off by the IRS, as was the case with a Greenwich contemporary once owned by disgraced hedge fund honcho Michael Lauer. On September 26, a lone bidder pledged the IRS floor price of $2.5 million at an auction that lasted all of 10 minutes. The proud new owner of a property that has been described as "weedy" and plagued by a "musty odor" is retired investor Mickey Low of Scottsdale, AZ, who raises schnauzers and was drawn to the home's "tremendous potential," according to local newspaper Greenwich Time. After the auction, a neighbor who had been irked by the grounds' unkempt appearance approached Low and asked, "Are you going to cut the grass now, or what?" the newspaper also reported.

Also in Greenwich—and representing another not-quite-ideal kind of sale—a newly constructed spec home changed hands for $13,750,000. The listing is perhaps better characterized as a nearly constructed home, as it is one of the manses marketed by Antares Investment Partners as a "couture" estate. And back in the day, the idea was a sound one: Antares handled the heartache and hassles of constructing the exteriors of these gorgeous, gigantic homes, allowing the buyers to finish their interiors in their own way and on their own dime. But as the economy soured, interest waned, at least in this $28-million-dollar property, which closed for less than half its asking price.

And this just in from New Canaan: Another "nearly constructed" home was put on the auction block at 12 noon one day in mid-October. The 20,000-square-foot manse, described as a "lakeside chateau," was built for a man who reportedly had a change of plans and is moving abroad. Even in its half-baked state, his dream home, on six acres, was appraised at $9.5 million, with an additional estimated $1.5 to $3 million needed to make it livable, depending on the kinds of finishes, fixtures and flooring selected.

So why was the property put up for auction before trying to list it with a broker? Statistics show that auctions are increasingly common—and not only due to the increase in foreclosures sent to the block by banks and the IRS. Auctions whip up a sense of urgency, often by setting the minimum bid artificially low. Indeed, the chateau in question has its floor price set at $3 million (plus the 10 percent fee always assessed at auction).

According to Realtors who have toured the place, the home is lovely, even unfinished, with four stories and 32 rooms, including six bedrooms and seven full bathrooms (and three half bathrooms). The master suite is set in a private wing, offering fireplaces in both the bedroom and the bathroom, a sitting room with a wet bar and a two-level dressing room that's designed so out-of-season garments can be whisked upstairs.

Throughout, the home has all the de rigueur amenities, along with some we wouldn't have thought of (but then again, we weren't raised in a chateau): a 30-foot coffered ceiling in the entryway, a spiral staircase in the two-story library, staff quarters and service entrances, a mudroom with a drip-dry closet and a conservatory (although this last room is described as "future," which we take to mean "build it yourself"). On the grounds are a lakeside infinity pool, a garage with space for eight cars plus a car-wash bay and a guesthouse. If you like the sound of all this (and have several million dollars cash at your disposable), you're in luck. At press time we learned that the auction yielded a couple of bids that met the floor price, one of them as high as $3.5 million. Both were rejected and the home's still for sale.

On a brighter note, we've learned of a few brand-new listings, in Norwalk, Greenwich and New Canaan, that are so unusual, they're actually attracting traffic. And while "unique" is easily the most over-used (and sometimes abused) word in real estate sales literature, this Norwalk property truly qualifies: This architect-designed cottage was built in 2004 on one of the Thimble Islands—on the Sound and off the grid—a 10-minute boat ride from the mainland. With its 360-degree water views and private dock, the tidy, 858-square-foot beach house offers all you need for island-style living: an efficiency kitchen; dining, living and sleeping quarters downstairs; and a second-floor master bedroom with a deck, a good place to take in an eyeful of sailboats, lighthouses and sunsets.

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The owner-architect—who, we hear, hoists a flag at cocktail time to welcome seafaring friends—constructed the dwelling with solar panels and a wind turbine. He also invested in a propane-powered backup generator, bragging that his entire energy bill last year totaled about $30. And he had the property approved for a well and septic system, though he did not actually build these amenities. Currently, the owner brings in his own water supply, and the bathroom functions like a ship's head (landlubbers, ask your more nautical pals for details, if you're curious). No boat? No problem: The owner is throwing in one of his own, which also includes the cottage's furnishings, and is entertaining all bids of $2.5 million and higher. Visit www.bettsisland.com for details or call listing broker Debra Gailhard of Waterfront & Estate Properties with the Higgins Group Real Estate in Westport (203) 221-7721.

A new Greenwich listing represents a glamorously Old-World Mediterranean-style estate on 3.75 acres near the Greenwich Country Club in what's called mid-country—north of town but not as socked away as the "back country" spreads. Called Twin Elms, this antique gem has rooms that simply aren't built these days: a dramatic reception hall, a music room, grandly scaled dining hall that adjoins a more intimate morning room, a year-round solarium, and a coffered-ceiling family room with a game alcove. The kitchen has a 13-foot granite center island and a butler's pantry. The sumptuous master bedroom suite is a wing unto itself, with a private sitting room. There are six additional bedrooms and five bathrooms, plus a staff apartment above the three-car garage. There's also a renovated guesthouse overlooking the heated swimming pool. Ellen Mosher of Greenwich Fine Properties is the broker for the $13.5 million property (203) 570-0275.

Finally, in New Canaan, Prutting & Company Custom Builders are putting the finishing touches on a home that pays homage to the town's midcentury Modern heritage. While it will surely attract fans of the Philip Johnson dwellings that have made New Canaan famous, the appeal of this listing is much broader. For one, it sits right in town, situated within walking distance of the train station and the shops along Elm Street. It also bears repeating that this home is new. The unwelcome little surprise about circa-1950s dwellings is that they often need renovation: Yes, they're "modern," but they're also several decades old and thus tend to need as much tending to as an antique. Beyond simply practical, this home is also beautiful, with an attention to material and detail that would make Johnson and the Harvard Five, the pack of architects he ran with, proud.

Designed by Joeb & Partners architects in Greenwich, the 5,500-square-foot home incorporates green technology and a truly resourceful configuration that yields the maximum living space while respecting zoning laws and ensuring privacy. Constructed from concrete and steel, with stone, wood planks, zinc and glass, the exteriors appear both low-slung and soaring, dramatic and restrained—planes and angles work together to create a really cool home. Our favorite part: the 900-square-foot roof deck with a hot tub, outdoor kitchen, fireplace and views over Mead Park. For more information and a tour of the place, visit www.prutting.com.

FALL '08 MARKET WRAP-UP
In our part of the country, real estate has a three-season calendar that skips winter altogether. Even when the market is hot, autumn activity winds down around Thanksgiving, not to revive until the start of the "spring" season, as early as February. In boom years, the fall market is brief but intense, with buyers and sellers motivated to move in and move on before the holidays. This fall could also be described as intense, although not necessarily in a good way. After all, Wall Street traders, hedge fund managers and investment-firm CEOs make up the moneyed populations in Greenwich and Westport. In some ways, Wall Street is Main Street in these places. But according to the New York Times, Darien may be hardest hit: Some 27 percent of the 20,000-resident town is employed in the financial and investment industries. Still, all over our state, Realtors report that they've continued with the day-to-day business of listing, showing and, yes, even selling homes. Here, a few of our favorites this fall:

Hand-Crafted
Wilton
$2,395,000
It's called a Craftsman's home for the style's distinctive throughout-the-house millwork, from baseboards to eaves and every surface in between. This Wilton home, constructed in 2004 by its builder-owner, looks as if a cadre of world-class carpenters camped out with their tools to craft the dramatic staircases and doorways, built-in cabinetry and exposed beams. The exterior is just as impressive, featuring an expansive, wrap-around porch, Bluestone-tiered terraces and stone walls. In all, the nearly 6,000-square-foot house offers four bedrooms and five bathrooms, including a master suite with its own spa bath and steam shower. Deborah Estes of Realty Seven in Wilton has the listing (203) 762-5548.

Colonial Conscience
Colebrook
$1,595,000
The town of Colebrook is easily the most authentic Litchfield County town you've never heard of. And it's determined to stay that way. Even the village center is steadfastedly old-fashioned, seemingly unchanged little since Colonial times. There's a circa-1802 general store. A Greek Revival-style church. And a mix of working farms, open meadows and grand (but largely hidden) second homes along its lovely roads. Jamie Niven, vice chairman of Sotheby's, and his wife, Lee Auchincloss, have a home there. So does Ralph Lauren's brother, Jerry. Currently, the prettiest home on the market is an estate on 39 acres, including a two-acre pond. Built in 1850 with Greek-Revival-style flourishes, the Rufus Holmes House has been restored and expanded over the years and now offers five bedrooms, four bathrooms and more than 3,000 square feet. It's listed with Andrew Gates of Sotheby's International Realty in Salisbury (860) 435-5924.

Antique Appeal
Southport
$2,990,000
The gentle and genteel arc of coastline that's called Southport Harbor composes one of Fairfield County's most appealing neighborhoods. Sidewalks, suitable for strolling, connect the Harbor to the village and railroad station. The grand homes overlooking the Sound and Southport Yacht Club are a mix of grand Victorians, gracious Federals and classic Colonials. One of them, the circa-1830 Lot Bulkley House, is now for sale. At nearly 3,700 square feet, the white-clapboard classic offers five bedrooms and three full bathrooms (plus two half bathrooms) on three-quarters of an acre. It's listed with Andrew Whiteley of William Raveis Real Estate of Southport (203) 258-1595.

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Deer Park Estate
Greenwich
$16,250,000
Deer Park Association homes offer the convenience of living close to town and trains but at a size and on grounds that confer the feel of back-country Greenwich. This newly constructed, 16,000-square-foot stone Georgian sits on a little more than two landscaped acres, which include a pool. Among its 21 rooms are eight bedrooms, nine full bathrooms (plus three half bathrooms), seven fireplaces and a grand, paneled library. And it's blessed with all the extras that are now considered standard issue for homes of this magnitude: the "front to back" entry hall, a fitness room, a home theater, a wine cellar and a four-bay garage. It's listed with B.K. Bates and Leslie McElwreath of Sotheby's International Realty (203) 618-3126 and (203) 618-3165.

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