Quirky Mansions Make a Tough Sell

Quirky Mansions Make a Tough Sell

Extreme dream homes-featuring Medieval turrets, a Western saloon or a ‘Hobbit’ house-cost

October 30, 2014 – The Wall Street Journal


John Nugent spared no expense customizing his Andover, Mass., home for his family. For his sports-loving children, he built a full-size indoor basketball court with a scoreboard, a 30-second shot clock and three rows of bleachers. Downstairs, there’s a bowling alley with a vintage scoring machine, and an indoor pool with a water slide. On a wall near the pool, there is a mural with images of Mr. Nugent’s children, along with the family’s dogs, cats, bird and pet rabbit.

Then the children grew up and moved out, and Mr. Nugent no longer needs as much space. The 56-year-old CEO of software company Visibility Corp. has been trying to sell his roughly 20,000-square-foot home—which also has a batting cage and pitching machine, an outdoor putting green and two locker rooms—for the past few years. The house cost about $6 million to build, Mr. Nugent said, so he put it on the market for $6.5 million—far more than most homes in this Boston suburb, where a house priced over $3 million is unusual. He is now trying to sell the property in a sealed-bid auction through the firm Madison Hawk Partners.

It’s a long-held real estate dictum that giving a home too many unusual features can damage its resale value. Despite that, many owners in recent years have only grown more focused on making their homes unique, real-estate experts said. Some owners spend years, and millions of dollars, creating a dream home suited to their specific tastes—without worrying about whether the resulting home will fit anyone else’s. The phenomenon holds especially true in areas of the country where real-estate prices are booming, making owners more confident their homes will sell no matter what.

Veterans say the emphasis on customization, which grew during the boom times of the 1990s and 2000s, has now picked up again after the economic downturn. It has been facilitated by the Internet, which gives owners access to lots of unconventional ideas with a few clicks.

“People see all the unique things that are being done, and it inspires them to want something unique,” said Peter Archer of Pennsylvania-based Archer & Buchanan Architecture, who recently designed a “Hobbit house” on a client’s property to hold a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien memorabilia.

Mel Bacon, the founder of Coronado Stone Products in Fontana, Calif., got the idea to build a castle-like structure from a client who built a house with a turret. “I told the architect, ‘I want a house with turrets,’ ” recalled Mr. Bacon, who is now in his late 70s. When the architect responded with a drawing of a castle, Mr. Bacon said he “had to have it.” Mr. Bacon’s company manufactured special stone to build the roughly 6,000-square-foot castle, which in addition to turrets had a drawbridge with a pool underneath. He and his wife filled it with antiques and put swords on the wall.

The two lived in the house, on about 11 wooded acres in the small town of Running Springs in the San Bernardino Mountains, for about 13 years. They enjoyed it greatly, he said, but decided around 2003 to sell the castle and move closer to their grandchildren.

The listing seemed to attract more gawkers than buyers, Mr. Bacon said. One potential purchaser seemed to be using the home to pick up women—he brought several different ladies to look at the house, Mr. Bacon recalled. A bigger problem was determining the right asking price, because the structure was so different from everything else in town.

Mr. Bacon spent around $300,000 building the home, and the $3.5 million asking price turned out to be “a little pricey for the area,” he said. He and his wife ended up selling the home after about six months on the market for $1.8 million. They now live in a “normal-looking house” on the water.

John Q. Adams, Sr., a retired pharmaceutical executive, created an Old-West-style saloon in a wooden building on his 801-acre ranch outside Steamboat Springs, Colo. First he found a 21-foot-long antique bar for the space, which has a front porch with a swinging wooden door. He added velvet wallpaper, a pool table and antique tables. Mr. Adams, who has several other houses on the ranch, uses the saloon for parties and fundraisers, and the two upstairs bedrooms come in handy for guests.

He’s now ready to sell. The ranch has been on the market for about two years, its price reduced to $24.25 million from $32.5 million. But Mr. Adams said the resale value was never a motivating factor. We “thought it would be just so unique to have an old-fashioned Western saloon on the ranch,” he said.

The location of a property can make a big difference in how much leeway an owner has to get creative, brokers said. If a home is in a sought-after location, wealthy buyers will be more willing to spend money on a renovation or even to demolish a house and rebuild.

Television executive Cary Glotzer spent more than $400,000 building an indoor half-basketball court with electronic scoreboard at his home in New York’s Hamptons. The five-bedroom Quogue house also has an elevator and home theater, and outside there is a pool and a combination tennis and basketball court.

Mr. Glotzer, who built the house in 2009, said he added the sports features mostly to keep his three children entertained and “to make our house the hangout house.” Now that a business opportunity is causing him to relocate, he put the house on the market a few weeks ago for $3.795 million with Patrick Galway of Town & Country Real Estate.

Mr. Glotzer said because the home is located in the affluent Hamptons, he thinks the amenities will be an asset that will help attract wealthy Wall Street buyers. “If this was in an isolated area with a basketball court, it would be a challenge” to sell, he said. “But because it’s in the Hamptons, I think it’s an advantage.”

Cassidy George, a 19-year-old art student at New York University, is taking this principle even further in Manhattan. With help from her parents—her father Eric is an investor and CEO of Omega Hospital in Louisiana—she purchased a “very regular” two-bedroom downtown apartment in May for $2.775 million.

Then Ms. George got creative. Enlisting the services of interior designer Francisca Trujillo, she painted the apartment almost entirely black, including the exposed brick. Aiming for “an ’80s-reminiscent, garage-rock aesthetic,” she hired street artists to “vandalize” her elevator door and cover the foyer with a floor-to-ceiling graffiti installation using abstracted images from a box of her keepsakes, from Ms. George’s face to Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” When the bathroom light is on, its door lights up with an image of a man urinating.

Ms. George said she knows that the space may not appeal to everyone, but that is part of what she likes about it. Plus, she doesn’t foresee moving for at least 10 years, and she’s confident the apartment will appreciate significantly during that time, black paint notwithstanding. As she told her father when she started looking at apartments, “the neighborhoods where I want to live are the ones that are really going up in value.”

Ms. George’s agent, Ande Sedwick of Town Residential, said her “jaw dropped” when she saw the redo, adding that it is very difficult to remove black paint from exposed brick. “That resale is going to take a very unique buyer,” she said.

Still, “the Bowery is so hot now” that the unit has likely appreciated since they bought it. “If they were to sell tomorrow, they would definitely get a return,” Ms. Sedwick said.