What mega-rich homebuyers get for their money (in Hong Kong, less space)

The wealthiest billionaires in China, the US, the Middle East and elsewhere are splashing out on one-of-a-kind homes, with US$100 million the new base price for developers catering to this tiny global elite

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 5:58pm

When the world’s ultra-rich go shopping for new homes these days, they’re no longer looking for the traditional “palaces”. While decades ago, the ultimate in luxury might have been studies in ornate excess – Trump-esque golden toilets, an aesthetic straight from Versailles – today’s buyer is more likely to go bespoke.

“Very often these properties are expected to be ... ultra customised and one-of-a-kind, complete with furnishings, art and vehicles,” says Marc Carver, principal of the Carver Property Group, a luxury real estate company with offices in New York and Atlanta. “As the number of global high-net-worth individuals continues to grow, so will their appetite for more and more exclusive products, particularly real estate.”

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That means properties such as the US$125 million Rancho San Carlos in Montecito, Santa Barbara County, Calfornia – one for those with a refined sensibility: there is a linen and sewing room, a children’s wing and, of course, a Scotch whisky pub. Or the La Dune estate in the Hamptons, priced at US$100 million, with sunken all-weather tennis courts and 122-metre stretch of beachfront. Or a sprawling 38,000 sq ft spread in Bel Air, California, with 150 art installations, 12 luxury cars in the garage, a cinema with seats layered with Hermes throws and pillows – and a price tag of US$250 million; it’s a home that the man who developed it, former Hong Kong handbag magnate Bruce Makowsky, says only about 3,000 people in the world could afford.

That, no doubt, includes Shenzhen real estate tycoon Chen Hongtian, who last year reportedly paid about HK$2.1 billion (US$270 million) for a home on The Peak, setting a new record for Hong Kong.

These 3,000 people are the same ones being courted for other uber-pricey properties, such as The Manor in Holmby Hills, in Los Angeles, on the market for US$200 million, and the US$195 million Gemini house in Manalapan, Florida. A few years ago, the idea of a US$100 million single family house in the US was incomprehensible. Today, it’s the starting point for a thriving category of homes specifically for billionaires.

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“The sky is the limit,” says Rick Hilton, chairman of Beverly Hills luxury residential brokerage firm Hilton & Hyland. “Once we hit the US$100 million mark, we broke the glass ceiling – and we’re seeing people comfortable with spending more than that.”

Hilton and other operators in that super-prestige realm are buoyed by the growing ranks of the billionaire set; according to Forbes, 2016 welcomed in another 198 people worth in excess of US$1 billion. These are the people, Makowsky said recently, “who spend US$200 million on a boat and US$100 million on a plane, and yet they’re still living in US$40 million homes. Why wouldn’t your house be as valuable as your plane?”

Makowsky and other developers are seeking to redress that imbalance with a new crop of homes that indulge every conceivable fantasy and aesthetic. The Manor has its own nightclub and spa; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, recently sold for US$100 million, includes a swimming grotto and a room with a built-in pipe organ; a US$100 million house in Holmby Hills comes with a bar/lounge and hiking trails. And there’s the aforementioned Rancho San Carlos and the Hamptons estate.

Even though there are 3,000 people in the world who could buy [one of these homes], there’s a much smaller list who would buy one
Gary Gold

Makowsky has made his US$250 million home not just move-in ready, but set up so a buyer can arrive and throw a house-warming bash on the same night: a staff of seven comes with the house for two years from the move-in date, the wine cellar is stocked with 2,500 bottles, and there are three kitchens – one of which has a revamped vintage meat grinder worth six figures.

The bowling alley is equipped with enough shoes for your entire party, and guests can treat themselves to a massage overlooking the pool, browse artworks (such as a US$1 million piece from Chinese sculptor Liao Yibai) or borrow one of the US$30 million worth of cars and motorcycles that are house accessories and bear marques including Bugatti and Lamborghini.

Makowsky says he didn’t initially set out to build the most expensive house in America. A few years ago he sold a home he’d built for US$70 million to Markus Persson, who was flush with cash from the sale of his company (which makes the Minecraft game) to Microsoft for US$2.5 billion.

At the time, US$70 million was the most ever paid for a home in Beverly Hills. In the past two years, prices for “trophy” homes in places such as Los Angeles, Miami and the Hamptons have slid up past the US$100 million mark, landing at the historic quarter of a billion dollars that Makowsky is seeking for the Bel Air property, which he built on spec to await a buyer.

Brokers working in the highest echelons of the market are aware of the inherent challenges of selling those properties: even if someone has a couple of hundred million dollars lying around to invest in a new pad, they may not want to. Warren Buffett, worth a reported US$74 billion, has famously lived in the same house since 1958.

“Even though there are 3,000 people in the world who could buy [one of these homes], there’s a much smaller list who would buy one,” says Gary Gold, the Beverly Hills realtor who sold the Playboy Mansion last August. The house first went on the market in early 2016 for US$200 million, but sold eight months later for half that price. The global publicity the listing received was helpful, but ultimately, Gold says, he needed to reach out to only a “handful of likely candidates”.

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“This was a very specific targeted effort, tweaking the messaging to people so they would understand what we were selling,” he says. The estate was ultimately sold to the head of a private-equity company who happened to already live in the neighbourhood.

Given the pretty finite number of potential buyers, houses in this price range are rarely snapped up in an instant, says Makowsky, adding that developers and sellers have to be patient and that negotiation is part of the deal.

Hilton says the Los Angeles market remains undervalued when compared with cities such as London, New York and Shanghai; ultimately, he says, on a per-square-foot basis, there is more value for money in US west coast properties than in other places. He says he’s seeing traction from the Middle East and China, and that the people looking at these US$100 million-plus properties tend to skew younger – typically in their 30s – and want to spend some of their newly acquired wealth.

Makowsky agrees, saying that on a per-square-foot basis, Los Angeles offers far greater value for money than other parts of the world.

“In Hong Kong, this house would cost considerably more than this,” he says. (Indeed, the HK$2.1 billion house on The Peak is just over 9,000 sq ft, less than a quarter of the size of Makowsky’s Bel Air home.)

Still, as far as straightforward investments go, there are probably smarter places to park your money, says Paul Habibi, a professor at the UCLA Ziman Centre for Real Estate. “At that end of the spectrum, when you’re dealing with the uber-wealthy, I don’t know if they’re making decisions with their best economic interests in mind,” he says. “There is such a thing as overconsumption, which this falls into.”

Habibi also says the typical buyers for these homes are new-money rather than old, and fall into two categories: those seeking a repository for funds, and others for whom such a purchase is a “look-at-me” move.

“There are people who have never had this kind of money before, and who are looking to experience it fully for the first time, whether it’s ridiculous or not. When you’re paying a few million just in property taxes every year on a single home, that is not a smart investment,” he says.

Gold says even at that level, pricing is everything. “Sellers are under the impression that whoever the hot buyers are at the moment – the Russians, Middle Easterners, Chinese – are just going to throw their money around and not care about it,” he says. “But nothing could be further from the truth. These are the places in the world where negotiating is a sport. If you price a home too high, you’re not going to get offers.”