Real Estate Tough Sell: The Too-Custom Home

Not that long ago, pretty much the greatest status symbol you could own was a trophy house: a home so highly customized that it shouted to the world just how special you were. Today, those same indulgences--the rooftop pools, bathrooms without doors and rooms with see-through glass floors--are the white elephants of the higher-end real estate marketplace. Let's face it: One man's moat with stepping stones is another man's, "Uh, how do you bring the groceries in from the car?"

It's not that unique features aren't fabulous, it's just that leaving too big a personal imprint--the koi pond filled with rescued sea turtles--can be an impediment in this buyers-rule market. It doesn't matter whether you're a celebrity or Joe Normal trying to sell your tract house: Experts say this is no time for purple dining-room walls and computerized toilet seats.
The credo that every house will sell if the price is right may be meeting the ultimate test with one current property--a San Francisco Victorian with a 16-by-7-foot chlorine swimming pool in the living room.

Listing agent Joe Marko, of Paragon Real Estate Group, says the Noe Valley house, on the market for $1.799 million, has gotten a lot of attention. About half of those who've come to view the place like the idea of a water feature in the living room. Other potential buyers--particularly parents of young children--have expressed concerns about safety. (The property is co-listed with Paragon's Rafael Acevedo.)

If a buyer likes everything else about a house except for one feature, whether it's a pool in the middle of the living space or something more mundane, Marko says his challenge is to show them how to rectify what they don't like. In this case, he says, they can just fill in the pool.

Agents trying to sell a home with features installed to meet one owner's very particular needs and tastes often struggle with the question of whether to highlight them or play them down.

That's the challenge facing Chad Rogers. The Hilton & Hyland Beverly Hills agent and former star on Bravo's "Million Dollar Listing" is the latest in a string of agents to list the unusual--if beautiful--eco-chic home designed by and for world-renowned photographer Douglas Busch. Listing price is $9,495,000, down from a high of $15 million in 2007.

The estate has been described as "high-end housing's epitome of a green, clean, self-sustainable machine." Is going green and a $5.5 million drop from the original price enough to sell the spread, which sits on 10 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean? Would you grab your checkbook if we said the property's three structures are all made of sustainable steel and glass, and Busch has only allowed all-natural cleaners in the home? If size matters, the house has the third-largest private residential pool (110,000 gallons) in all of Los Angeles County, a place with a certain affinity for both size and pools.

Or would the retractable roof over the master bedroom be a deal-breaker? How about the studio/guest house, surrounded by water and accessible only by stepping stones?

Rogers says that to build this property today--if the Coastal Commission would even allow it--would cost $15 million. He underscores the drought-resistant landscaping and the careful attention to details. It's not a property for everyone, he acknowledges. But he sees it as a home for someone--someone with refined tastes, a commitment to green, and an appreciation for a showplace.

The hardest homes to sell are those that were built with one person in mind, says Susan Monus, a Coldwell Banker agent who sells high-end homes in Malibu, many of them one-of-a-kind. "Today's high-end market consists of investors looking for steals and people with money who want a trophy property. But they want their own trophy property, not somebody else's."

Owners of highly personalized listings can take comfort in knowing that even the over-the-top Bel-Air home built by Wilt Chamberlain in 1971 and where he lived until his death in 1999 eventually sold. Chamberlain had put in a gold-lined hot tub, a retractable mirror over the master bed and had a wraparound swimming pool that ran through the living room.

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