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Agent Makes Cool $1 Million in Hot Housing Market

July 31, 1988|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

What do Elvis Presley, Walter Annenberg, Pia Zadora, John Lennon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jerry Buss, three Japanese billionaires, the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the emissary of the sultan of Brunei and Julie Andrews have in common?

They bought or sold a home through real estate agent George (Bruce) Nelson.

By Beverly Hills (where he hangs his license) standards, Nelson isn't so extraordinary for his clients as for the commissions he has earned so far this year. And he epitomizes, as well as anyone in the country, what a banner year it has already been for residential real estate.

Since December, Nelson says, he has sold $81 million in homes, and last week, he was in the middle of arranging a $40-million deal involving three properties, in Santa Barbara, Malibu and Beverly Hills.

A Million by March

Because of the larger-than-normal commission split he gets due to his track record ("I normally get 85% of whatever commission I bring into the office, and even on the big deals, we usually get 6% if we handle the whole transaction"), he made $1 million in commissions by March. That is unusual in residential sales, even on the pricey Westside.

"I know of no other real estate salesman in the United States who has ever done this, selling strictly residential properties," Nelson said. In 1987, the average real estate salesman made about $19,000, said a spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Realtors.

In his 25 years of selling real estate, Nelson, 56, never before topped the $1-million commission level even for a year, though he hovered around the mark in 1987, and he is as thrilled as if he had won the lottery.

"I saw my bank account climbing astronomically, and I thought it's about time to buy Bruce a present. About the same time, my car, which I bought 10 years ago, had a death stroke. I'd always dreamed of owning a (Rolls-Royce) Corniche."

So he went to a dealer, wrote a check for a Corniche, and drove it off the showroom floor.

The list price was $183,000. "But I asked, 'Is there any negotiating on this?' I figured that was pretty nervy to ask in such a snooty place, but the salesman nodded yes, and I said, 'Give me your low-ball price.' I got it for $165,000."

Negotiating comes naturally to Nelson, but that isn't among the secrets he lists for his success, which he admits is in great part due to the hot market, even in Nelson's specialty, the top end.

"I've been accused by more than one broker this year of selling off the top end--from Pickfair (in Beverly Hills), which went for about $7 million, to two Bel-Air houses that sold to the Japanese for (a total of) $12 million, to several homes in the flats of Beverly Hills, priced at $2 million to $3 million apiece and adding up to about $20 million," he said.

Sold Holmby Estate

Nelson did not handle both sides of these transactions, but he did in the nearly $11-million sale in May of an estate owned by Patrick Frawley, founder of the Schick alcoholic treatment centers. That estate is in Holmby Hills, where Nelson, an area resident for 43 years, lives as well as works when he's not in his office at Asher Dann & Associates.

Nelson's license plate even reads "HOLMBY," and he lives there in style with his concert grand piano, which he plays quite well.

"I started taking classical lessons when I was 14," he said. "I begged for them after I met (the great pianist) Jose Iturbi."

That was shortly after he and his parents moved to Beverly Hills from Chicago.

Nelson's father (Nelson is his namesake) was an architect and builder, once listed in "Who's Who in America," which might help explain why Nelson feels comfortable with important people, and that's certainly an asset in his business.

Offspring of Notables

As a young man, Nelson fraternized with the offspring of many notables, including Amparo Iturbi, Jose's sister; pianist Artur Rubinstein, violinist Jascha Heifetz and 'cellist Gregor Piatagorsky. He also learned to appreciate art and architecture.

He bought his house 10 years ago from the people who built it in the '30s. The home was built for the great-grandson of U.S. President Benjamin Harris on a fairway of the Los Angeles Country Club.

Nelson lives in a neighborhood that oozes success. His home is next door to actress Michele Lee's, and a few houses away from the huge chateau being built by producer Aaron Spelling on the site of the former Bing Crosby home, which Spelling tore down after purchasing for $10.25 million from Patrick Frawley, represented by you guessed it--Bruce Nelson.

To what does Nelson point for his success?

'Many Things Can Go Wrong'

Besides using some inventiveness, like selling two or three adjacent homes to be turned into one estate, Nelson said:

"So many things can go wrong in a real estate deal that to anticipate what can go wrong and not wait to let it happen is a key.

"I try to remove all contingencies before a property goes into escrow. I get agreement on the deposit receipt, then establish a time period for contingencies to be removed.

"I also get a large amount of cash in escrow. One I just completed got $500,000, another got $1 million after the contingencies were removed."

He admits that he can only do this, though, "because it is a market that has been picked clean."

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