Thursday, Sep 27, 2012









America's Strange Homes For Sale
By Francesca Levy


These are not cookie-cutter colonials. Instead, in some parts of the country, cliff-side compounds and remodeled lighthouses are being listed.

Perhaps after sailing into your home port after an international cruise, you wished that you could have stayed on the boat--permanently.

Maybe you're irritated by the walk from your car to your front door. You'd rather step from your vehicle right into your room.

Or you feel that the trees surrounding your home provide too many hiding places for your enemies, and you yearn to live in an isolated desert landscape--but only on a hill, in a retro, above-ground dome where you have the terrestrial advantage over approaching foes.

These might seem like uncommon needs, but they've all been addressed by architects and contractors--resulting in outrageous, unconventional homes. And those whose very specific requirements could be met by an apartment in a "residential community at sea," a "floating" California home that includes a Batcave - like elevator for your car, or a "volcano home" in the middle of the desert are in luck - all these homes exist, and they're on the market right now.

They aren't the only homes that inspire double-takes. The inclination to buck homebuilding conventions extends to property owners who have custom-built castles, installed ice cream parlors and occupied lighthouses to meet their housing needs. To find some of the oddest, we teamed with Realtor.com, Sotheby's Realty and Christie's Great Estates, and rounded up 10 bizarre properties whose only common characteristics are that they're unlike any other home, and they're all on the market.

But while wacky homes might be the perfect complement to their original owners' taste, their success on the resale market is difficult to predict. Homes that are remodeled conservatively, with kitchen upgrades, for example, offer a better rate of return than homes with even slightly unusual discretionary features, like tennis courts and pools, says Kermit Baker, senior research fellow at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. That doesn't bode well for homes with indoor basketball courts and on-site wedding chapels.

During the heady days of the market boom, homeowners often acted on the assumption that home prices would climb indefinitely. They took more risks in an effort to put their personal stamp on their homes, and financing the customization was rarely a problem.

"When everything was selling, the market was tight, and credit was easy, there was lots of interest in making your house unique, and making it stick out from other homes in your subdivision," says Baker. "People were more willing to spend on their home, and spend on unique features in their home."

Now, however, with existing-home prices down 12.5% from last year and home sales 30% below their peak, according to the National Association of Realtors, the market for homes with wacky features has all but dried up. The few with the means and desire to buy are staying safe and considering the resale value of their homes.

"There's a movement toward affordability, and thinking 'what can I resell it for?' " says Baker. "House prices have collapsed and it has made folks more conservative in terms of the projects they'll undertake and the features they're looking for."

Cliff-Side Marvels

Several custom features distinguish a Redwood City, Calif., home designed by architect Fred Herring. Beyond its decadent perks like an elevator and cliff-side setting, the bended-roof bamboo home bows and bends "like a crescent-shaped moon," says Realtor Jami Arami of Alain Pinel Realtors. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, its distinctive character, the home hasn't sold in over three months and its $1.4 million price tag has been slashed by $130,000. That still makes it nearly $200,000 higher than the area's average home price.

If bendy appeals to you but curved walls aren't daring enough, you'll have a hard time finding a property less flat than the colorful, modular East Hampton, N.Y. home whose sellers describe it as a "synthesis of architecture, art and science." Throughout the home are textured, cleaving hills where floors should be. Owning this primary color-drenched home, designed by architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins, will set you back $4 million.

It's What's Inside That Counts

A fondness for unconventional housing may be a particularly Californian trait, because four of the 10 weirdest homes we found were in the Golden State. In the famously posh suburb of Laguna Beach lies another show-stopping home with unusual bones. Jutting hillside construction and floor-to-ceiling glass makes the estate appear to float. But a casual observer wouldn't notice any of this from the street. The home is camouflaged by its mountainous surrounding. A secret tunnel leads into the home, and that cloak-and-dagger atmosphere was what appealed to its owners, who, according to Realtor Donna Pfanner of Coldwell Banker are "very private, and would not want their identity disclosed."

A commercial-grade hydraulic-lift garage elevates vehicles into the home. After all, having to climb the stairs after driving into the tunneled entrance to your hidden mansion would probably detract from its $11.9 million glamour.

Like the Laguna Beach home, a New Canaan, Conn., mansion looks grand from the outside, but only the entrance into the home reveals what makes it unusual, a "sports barn" that includes an indoor basketball court. The owners have listed it at $12.5 million--perhaps having lost their taste for playing hoops.

Way-out features abound in a John's Creek, Ga., home", which, with its 58 acres of dazzling Moroccan-themed corridors, gilded moldings and landscaped gardens, evokes Liberace. But even the famously flamboyant pianist might not have dreamed up perks like a seashell-shaped amphitheater large enough to seat an orchestra and a pool to match, an Asian tea garden and a replica 1950s ice cream parlor. The eccentric baron that takes on this luxury playhouse will pay around $13.9 million--a bargain, considering the sellers value it at $35 million.

Not all Californian lovers of offbeat homes choose to live by the beach. Huell Howser cherishes his modernist Newberry Springs, Calif. dome, perched atop a mountain in a rustic desert setting. Its silhouette from a distance make it clear why it has been called the "Volcano House." While panoramic desert views are bound to wow guests, it's the home's spaceship-like appearance and irreverent late-1960s architecture that stand out--and make it a tough sell. For those brave enough to inhabit the dome, it's going for $750,000. "To the adventurous buyer: Your home has landed," says Howser.

Live Like Royalty

America has few authentic castles, so homeowners who wish to live like bygone monarchs are often forced to build their own. That's exactly what the owners of an adapted castle in (where else) California did 35 years ago. They took a 1930s cottage and built a stone castle around it to fulfill their fairy tale fantasy. It's on the market for $1.8 million.

Their dream was shared by the dentist who built himself a medieval castle in 1970s Phoenix. The sun-drenched yellow stone structure with turrets, a dungeon and drawbridge leaves no historical detail unrealized. It sits atop Camelback Mountain and is going for $3.5 million.

Castles aren't the only unconventional structures you can inhabit for the right price. In Deer Isle, Maine, Dr. Charles Beasley and his wife bought a lighthouse because it reminded Beasley of a stone and glass structure he loved as a youth. They modified it extensively and now enjoy watching sunsets through the tall glass windows. Because Beasley's orthopedic problems have made living in the five-story spiral staircase structure untenable, he's put it up for sale and is asking $2.9 million.

But what if all of these structures just strike you as too earthbound, and you need a home that doesn't just feel like it's floating on an ocean, but actually is at sea? A company called ResidenSea has anticipated your needs. The world's "only residential community at sea" is sailing into a port near you soon, and they've got vacancies. As opposed to cabins on a cruise ship, these nautical "apartments" have the kind of space, amenities and luxury details that their high-end clientele would expect on land, says Nikki Upshaw, spokeswoman for ResidenSea. "There's a certain romance, still, to traveling by sea," she says. "The owner gets a sense of 'I'm on the world's largest private yacht, but I can always get a seat at the restaurant or a spot at the spa. I don't have to worry about the queue.' "

But ResidenSea, where owners are typically on vacation house No. 3 or 4 (Upshaw says only a handful of families live there year-round), has taken a knock as the market for excess has softened. "We absolutely have not been immune to the realities of the marketplace," says Upshaw. "It is now a buyers market. There's the opportunity for someone that cherishes this lifestyle to buy really well." Homes on the ship sell for between $1.4 million and $13.5 million. They're best for those who are not prone to seasickness, or, since boats are a depreciating asset, won't be rocked by stormy economic conditions.


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