The Priciest Top 10 Ever

It’s been 10 years since the editors of Unique Homes debuted Ultimate Homes. And this year, we find ultra-high-end real estate selling at prices never seen before.

By Camilla McLaughlin

It has been a hectic spring in the ultra world. First, a Manhattan townhouse went under contract for $100 million. Although the property housed an art gallery and was zoned commercial, the price is still a record for a New York City commercial townhouse. Then Fleur de Lys, which for a number of years had captured first or second place on Ultimate’s list, sold for a reported $102 million. The ink had barely settled on this deal when Copper Beech, a historic waterfront estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, sold for $120 million, besting the $117.5 million U.S. record set in 2012 for a Woodside, California, estate.

“The greatest thing about a record-making sale is another one comes along and breaks that record. Just when you think you’re the cat’s meow, someone comes along and does a bigger sale,” observes Joyce Rey, executive director of Coldwell Banker Previews International, who probably knows more about breaking and setting price records than anyone else in the U.S. Her track record includes dozens of national, local and regional benchmarks, including the highest price in the country in 2010 and in 1978, when she sold the famed Sonny & Cher estate for the second time. That transaction doubled the highest residential price ever paid in the U.S. At the time, the $4.2 million price seemed hard to believe.

That very same estate, with a Robert Farquhar- designed residence, is the centerpiece of this year’s top property, Owlwood, which is priced at a reported $150 million. While $150 million is not an Ultimate record high, prices of this year’s Top 10 overall are higher than any of the past years. Last year, the Ultimate list began at $135 million with $75 million rounding out the top 10. The lowest price this year, $95 million, isn’t even close.

Contrast today’s prices with $75 million, which designated the highest-priced property in the very first Ultimate published in 2005. Long hours combing through thousands of “for sale” properties went into that first edition. At the time, individual trophy homes might garner headlines, but little was really known about the part of the market considered the ultra high end. The goal for Ultimate Homes was to identify and chart the most expensive properties for sale in the U.S. Since there was no accurate estimate where the top 850 properties would begin, the search started at the $2 million mark. Anticipated benchmarks rapidly fell by the wayside and when the dust settled, $8.84 million was the starting price for the ultra market, with prices for the Top 10 beginning at $48 million.

Over the years, we’ve enhanced the process, but still meticulously search properties all over the country. Today, you might see similar lists, but most skim along the surface, cherry picking the most publicized properties. Few dip below the top 10 or 15. This year, $20 million is the jumping off point for the ultra high end.

“If you go back 25 years, prices like we see today simply didn’t exist,” observes Paul Boomsma, president of Luxury Portfolio International. “Even in the Hollywood Hills, in the early 1990s $10 million was rare.”

Although some have dubbed 2013 “the year of pricing audaciously,” more than wishful thinking goes into today’s numbers. Comparables for prices in the stratosphere don’t exist, but what holds favor with buyers does. Over the years, what constitutes a trophy property hasn’t changed a great deal: land, outstanding architecture, provenance and lifestyle. “Certainly location and the rarity of everything that is being offered,” is most important, observes Rey, who believes trophy properties will continue to fetch record prices because they are so unique.

Noting the limited supply of properties driving demand in Manhattan, Hall Wilkie, president of Brown Harris Stevens Residential Sales, says, “The marketplace is always sensitive to value. Homes that are overpriced will continue to linger on the market at all price levels.”

In the end, says John Brian Losh, publisher of, “price is always determined by a willing seller and a willing buyer.” Regarding publicized sales, he notes, “You never really know the deal. Are there hold backs, contingencies?”

Land and location still form the cornerstone of value. Owlwood sits on over 10 acres, making it twice as large as any estate in Holmby Hills. Changes in the amount of land resulted in last minute price juggling for two other Ultimate top properties. After the sale of Fleur de Lys, the owner of Beverly House decided to reincorporate two adjacent properties back into the offering and raise the price to $135 million. Now, the property sits on over 6 acres and includes two other houses in addition to the historic Beverly House, which in itself is significant. That’s three houses, three pools, two tennis courts, 30 bedrooms and 40 baths — a magnificent compound minutes from the center of Beverly Hills, according to Jeff Hyland, co-founder of Hilton & Hyland, who is listing the property.

Strong interest from potential buyers for Crespi-Hicks in Dallas prompted the owners to search for land to build a new home. Unable to find anything even close to the quality of acreage surrounding Crespi-Hicks, they decided to retain 10 acres and offer the Crespi-Hicks estate home and 15 acres of meadows, creek and forest at $98 million (down from $135 million). Like Beverly House, Crespi-Hicks sits on some of the most valuable land in America — only eight minutes from city center, in an elite enclave within Preston Hollow, the most desired neighborhood in Dallas. Built in the late 1930s for an Italian count, Pio Crespi, and designed by Maurice Fatio, it is one of the best examples in the country of architecture and estates from that era. When the current owners purchased the property 16 years ago, they honored the original architecture, hiring architect Peter Marino to update the home. Douglas Newby, owner of Architecturally Significant Homes in Dallas, who is listing the property, points out that it is land, rather than houses, that really appreciates and is key to value.

Legacy properties like Crespi-Hicks and The Beverly House only come along once in a generation, if that often. Another legacy, the Estate and Lands of de Guigné in Hillsborough, California, priced at $100 million, is for sale for the first time in 150 years. Home to four generations of the de Guigné family, the almost 100-year-old, 16,000-square-foot main residence designed by turn-of-the-century architects Bliss & Faville is one of California’s few remaining period mansions surrounded by a substantial amount of land. The 47-acre estate, one of the largest undeveloped parcels in the peninsula, is only 20 minutes from the center of San Francisco. Decorated by celebrated designer Anthony Hall, the interiors of the mansion evoke the sophistication and grandeur of a bygone era. The architecture might be grand and bold, but like almost all the Ultimate properties, the home is extremely livable.

Another good testimony to the enduring value of land is the interest coming from homegrown wealth, Silicon Valley denizens who live in large homes, but lack a sizeable amount of land. The attraction, according to Gregg Lynn with Sotheby’s International Realty, who is listing the Lands and Estates of de Guigné, is the opportunity to own a legacy, a “transgenerational property, one that would pass along to future generations.”

Also offering a sizable chunk of land is Wooldon Manor in Southampton, New York, priced at $98 million. The estate, which overlooks the panorama of the Atlantic, has a pedigree that includes the Woolworth family and Edmund C. Lynch, founding partner of Merrill Lynch. The 15-acre parcel includes five buildable lots, but the main estate house is a Tudor classic built in the late 1920s.

Priced above $100 million and marketed primarily for the value of the land rather than the homes, two other U.S. residential listings in Key Largo and Martha’s Vineyard did not make it into Ultimate. All properties on the Ultimate list with sizable amounts of land also have a residence of considerable value.

California properties always have had a strong position on the list, but this year New York is home to six of the top 10, another Ultimate first. “When assessing the Manhattan residential market, it’s important to remember several key factors. We’ve had record low inventory for months,” explains Wilkie.

Scarcity and views are most important in New York right now, according to Boomsma.

Manhattan’s superstar is a 69th Street townhouse on the Upper East Side offered at $114.077 million. While it may seem this property is riding the wave of the city’s most recent record sale, the value here is solid and a location on one of the quietest streets in the Sixties is even more desirable. Every aspect of this striking six-story mansion has been redone to the highest expectations. Ceiling heights range from 10 to 32 feet, but energy-conserving features, including radiant heat and separate heating and air conditioning for each floor and section, keep operating costs in check. Built in 1884, the home reflects this grand era, but state-of-the-art systems make it definitely 21st century. “They took it down to the bone and there’s where you find the price tag,” says Gabriella Dufwa with The Corcoran Group, who is listing the property. Additionally in Manhattan, a 40-foot-wide townhouse is a rarity, and the gorgeous finishes have been executed with a remarkable degree of elegance. Another perk: a spectacular rooftop deck and garden with water and electricity, making it an ideal spot to take advantage of Central Park views.

When Elizabeth Sample and Brenda Powers with Sotheby’s International Realty sold The Pierre penthouse in 1997 for $20.5 million, it was the most expensive transaction in the 20th century for a New York City property. Now, they say, “We have transactions as high as $100 million. Things have changed in New York City in the past 10 years relative to the luxury new construction condominiums. These are extremely desirable properties and prices as high as $95 million are under contract for individual apartments.”

Our other Manhattan superstars also have few comparables. Among the top four is a $100 million penthouse that occupies three floors at the top of CitySpire. Listed by Klar Realty, it also includes an additional separate guest apartment. The building’s distinctive octagonal configuration lends itself to innovative floor plans and spectacular 360-degree views. Glass walls and balconies wind around all three levels.

Priced at $98 million is a two-level penthouse at One Beacon Court. Noted architect Charles Gwathmey designed the interior space, which includes a magnificent double-height living room with a 24-foot ceiling and two walls of windows to capture seemingly unending views, a quality almost all of our New York notables claim.

Two other storied properties on the list, both priced at $95 million, are penthouses at The Pierre and The Sherry-Netherland. Both properties occupy privileged locations in some of Manhattan’s most desired real estate. The 16-room penthouse at The Pierre occupies three full floors and is offered by Sotheby’s International Realty. The second-floor living room, the hotel’s original ballroom, is considered the most magnificent privately owned room in the world.

What’s new too this year is the degree of interest agents say they are getting. Ask Steve Klar — who owns the three-level penthouse at CitySpire — about interest, and he points to a list of appointments, many with international buyers, going out several months.

Worldwide wealth reached an unprecedented level in 2013, and the super rich still perceive real estate as a prime asset. In this year’s white paper on the luxury residential market, Christie’s International Real Estate estimates the super wealthy invest 20 percent of their assets in real estate, excluding their primary home. And real estate tracks very close to art as an investable asset.

“We are getting incredible traction,” says Lynn. International buyers are driving sales in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They are, Lynn says, “on a quest for large pieces of land in desirable locations around the world.”

Another switch this year is a growing interest from U.S. buyers. In addition to tech billionaires, Lynn says interest is coming from the East Coast and New York. “The future of our economy is always going to be married to technology, and financing for technology seems to be right on our shores here in Silicon Valley. We’re seeing a fair response from brokers representing some
of the most high profile bankers and financiers who are looking to move here.”

Looking ahead, both Rey and Boomsma expect to see more properties in the Ultimate category. During the economic crisis, some individuals were building homes or doing a major renovation, explains Boomsma, and many of these homes — when they eventually find their way to the market — will most likely have prices near the pinnacle.

“We’re seeing a lot of construction here that is going to show up on your list in future years,” says Rey.

And it seems some of those listings are showing up already. This year, the editors of Unique Homes found about 400 listings above $20 million for the Ultimate Homes list (which immediately follows this story) — a jump of about 33 percent from last year’s list of 300.


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