There's a new house on the market in the stately Bel Air section of Los Angeles. It has 36 bedrooms, 34 baths and sits on 3.2 prime acres in the neighborhood shared by Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and many more of the rich and famous.
But there's no for-sale sign out front. In fact, you have to get a credit check before realtor Joyce Rey will give you a tour.
Inside, Rey points out the high ceilings, beautiful moldings and two fireplaces, which have never been used. Outside, she highlights the gardens, swimming pool, tennis courts and 10-car garage. Above the garage are nine bedrooms – for the staff.
So what's the price for all this opulence? Forty million dollars, a bargain compared with the property's original asking price of $53 million.
Rey, a petite, platinum blonde dressed in a pale grey suit that matches her Mercedes, isn't worried about selling it, either. This year, 23 estates priced at $10 million or above have sold in the area. That's double last year's totals. Rey has been breaking records since the 1970s, when she sold a house here for $4.2 million. That was hot news all over the country.
"They couldn't believe that anybody was going to pay that much money for a house in 1978," she recalls, "so you can see how far we have come."
Very far, indeed. These days, the high end of the real-estate market is also the hot end. Sales of properties in lower-cost communities have plummeted, while those in the middle are struggling. But the market for luxury properties, those defined as worth at least $10 million, is booming.
High-end homes are selling so well, there is even room for a niche market: the fully-furnished, fully-stocked estate, complete with a plasma screen TV in every room.
"It's immediate gratification," says San Diego realtor Patricia Kramer, who sells the move-in specials. Some in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe are as large as 20,000 square feet.
Says Kramer, "You walk in and you bring your toothbrush and you are home. "
If you want to tour the estates, though, you may have to settle for the virtual one, because only those who pre-qualify to buy are allowed inside.
John Karevoll, with the real-estate information service DataQuick, says economic growth has benefited the very high-end households more than it has helped middle-income and lower-income ones.
"In fact," Karevoll says, "lower-income households are probably doing worse than they were five, 10, 20 years ago."
According to Census data, middle-income families saw their wealth increase a little more than 7 percent in the last 15 years. Contrast that with the richest 5 percent of the population, who have seen their wealth soar 40 percent.
"It's another gilded age in America," says Rick Goodwyn, publisher of Unique Homes magazine. "The wealthy are rapidly becoming wealthier."
Goodwyn points out that there are now six U.S. residences on the market priced at more than $100 million. They most likely will be bought by people with international connections.
In fact, the weak dollar has made U.S. trophy homes a good deal for foreigners
This month, the priciest residential listing in the U.S. just went on the market: a 29-bedroom Beverly Hills estate once owned by William Randolph Hearst. Asking price: $165 million.