Architectural gems languish on Calif. housing market, as downturn hits storied structures

By Jacob Adelman, AP
Friday, August 27, 2010

Marquee homes languish on Calif. housing market

LOS ANGELES — Southern California’s home-sale listings are beginning to resemble an index to the country’s most famous mid-20th-century architects, with more marquee properties languishing on the market as the well-heeled become increasingly reluctant to buy.

Homes by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler that once sold briskly to architectural aficionados for stratospheric prices are now selling at a loss — if at all.

“Those days of easy money and money-is-no-object artwork kinds of prices are gone,” said architect and real estate agent Brian Linder, who has a listing for a 1937 condo unit by Austrian emigre designer Richard Neutra that’s had its price cut to $675,000 after hitting the market in May for $815,000.

It’s a big change from just a few years ago, when the housing-finance bubble that inflated property values throughout the country earlier in the decade showed itself even more prominently among architecturally significant homes. Those homes often sold for many times what their less notable neighbors fetched.

Pierre Koenig’s late 1960s Case Study House No. 21, for example, sold in December 2006 after barely a week on the market for $3.2 million, or around $2,400 a square foot. That compares to an average of $500 to $600 per square foot for neighboring homes at the time, Linder said.

But the prices of many of these pedigreed homes hasn’t yet come down to the level where buyers would be willing to make a purchase.

A 1949 home built in the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains outside Los Angeles by John Lautner, best known for the octagonal Chemosphere that looms over the Hollywood Hills, has been on the market for about two years.

The asking price for the airy redwood-and-glass structure, called the Schaffer Residence, debuted at around $2 million, but has since been cut to about $1.5 million.

In the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood, the Austrian-born Schindler’s sparse, concrete How House hit the market in September 2008 at around $5 million. Its last listing was at $1.9 million.

Meanwhile, in the hills overlooking the neighborhood of Los Feliz, Wright’s Ennis house, which has been featured in such movies as “Blade Runner,” and “House on Haunted Hill,” has had its price reduced from $15 million last summer to about $7.5, and it still hasn’t found a buyer.

The 1924 home’s current owner, the nonprofit Ennis House Foundation, began seeking a buyer for the home in the Mayan-ruins-inspired “textile block” style after spending some $6.5 million to fix damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Another of Wright’s Mayan-influenced homes, the Millard House in Pasadena, has had its price cut from nearly $8 million to around $5 million during the two years it’s been for sale.

The current owners bought the home, also known as La Miniatura, about 12 years ago and have even entertained a proposal by an art dealer whose Japanese client considered buying the home, dismantling it block-by-textile-block and shipping it to Japan.

“We have a priceless treasure at a bargain price and it’s not as well understood at home probably as it is around the world,” said the home’s listing agent, Crosby Doe.

High-priced homes by brand-name architects don’t seem to be selling any better in other parts of the country.

Wright’s 60-year-old concrete-and-mahogaony Fawcett House, on 80 acres of farmland in California’s northwest San Joaquin Valley, went on the market nearly two years ago at $2.8 million.

Real estate agent Zack Anawalt said his firm, which recently took over the home’s sale, plans to relist it next week at about $2 million.

And in the Highland Park suburb of Chicago, the modernist glass-and-steel box-shaped home best known as the launching point of a character’s father’s Ferrari in 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” has languished on the market for more than a year.

The house, built in 1953 by Mies van der Rohe-protege A. James Speyer, was first listed for $2.3 million in May 2009. Last month, its price was cut to about $1.7 million.

James Ebert, a property appraiser who specializes in architecturally significant homes, said prices would have to come down even more in order to attract buyers for these homes, many of which are in disrepair and require expensive maintenance to keep their historic integrities intact.

“When the economy was in better shape, people were willing to spend a little extra for a work of art,” he said. “In the recession we’re in now, that architectural, creative edge tends to dissipate and buyers become more concerned for basic shelter.”

Doe, meanwhile, attributed some of the difficulty selling these homes to a post-meltdown change in the rules governing property appraisals, under which appraisers must be chosen at random.

Since appraisers can’t be selected based on their architectural backgrounds, many ignore homes’ design pedigrees in their valuations and compare them to less notable surrounding homes based only on quotidian aspects like floor space and kitchen amenities.

Consequently, those appraisals come in lower than in the past, which discourages banks from offering loans large enough to cover asking prices.

“It’s the same thing as taking a Picasso and a paint-by-numbers and saying they’re the same,” he said.

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