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Haute Property : O.C. Celebs Selling Their Estates Find a Name Alone Won't Do the Job


"Washington slept here."

--common untruth

"The rich are different."

--common truth

Is there such a thing in Orange County today as a recession-proof house? Someplace you can sell with no sweat without budging an inch on the asking price? The sort of casa very grande that people will come sprinting out of the blocks to post offers on?

"Sure," you might say. "What about those behemoth custom joints with amenities such as indoor polo fields and freight elevators? The kind of places you don't describe as 'that big house' but as 'The (your name here) Estate'?"

You'd be half right. As the recession grinds on and the real estate market exhibits an ever-starker yin-and-yang personality (great time to buy, rotten time to sell), the Orange County chateau of the well-heeled and well-known may or may not be turning over at the same sluggish rate as your basic tract house.

Also, a former tenant with a familiar name may lend a certain cachet to the place, but in the current economic crunch it may not be enough to swing a deal on its own.

Still, when they're up on the block the houses of Orange County's luminaries continue to be a fine sight, occupied or not.

Take the Harbor Ridge home of auto dealer Jim Slemons. Perched on the highest point on the ridge, with views of Newport Beach and the harbor from nearly every room, it has been up for sale for nearly five months, most recently at a marked-down $3,699,000 (from the original $4,250,000). In pre-recession days the house--it has been advertised as "The Slemons Estate"--probably would have fetched the original asking price, said real estate agent Ann Peters, who is handling the property. But in hard economic times, "I don't think there's any distinction (among potential buyers of high-ticket and lower-priced properties). All buyers seem to be shaky confidence-wise."

Offers have not exactly been winging in. Peters said that, as of about three weeks ago, only two offers were made (neither panned out) and two other potential buyers were showing interest. And the house remains unoccupied.

But magnificently so. The house, only about 18 months old, comes fully furnished, as is, except for a white grand piano in the living room and a collection of slot machines in the downstairs game room. Those will go with Slemons to his new home in Hawaii.

Otherwise, the 9,500-square-foot, three-bedroom Mediterranean-style house is fully furnished--filled with designer furniture, state-of-the-art built-in electronics and such amenities as a downstairs maid's quarters, a wine cellar, a separate staircase to the guest quarters, a full bar, a white marble-and-granite entry hall and hearth, a custom spa and pool, a fully equipped exercise room, a library, a five-car garage that can accommodate a limousine and a storage room to be used, according to the agent's brochure, "for all the extras that one tends to collect."

"At night," said Peters, "it's Disneyland."

Somewhere down the hill in that fantasyland of night lights is another pricey yet empty house: the former Linda Isle home of author Joseph Wambaugh, and for $3,495,000 it can be yours. The problem so far: No one seems to want it badly enough to pay the price. The house was put on the market two years ago, then removed for a time and rented. It has been available for sale for the past eight months.

Not that there is anything wrong with the looks of the place. Perched over a dock that can accommodate a pair of 60-foot yachts, the house boasts a commanding view of Harbor Island and its adjacent channel and much of Newport Harbor. It is bright, large (almost 4,000 square feet), done almost exclusively in tans and light-colored wood, has an interior brick patio with a pool and spa, and various marble floors. And a few steps away is the home of Orange County's only billionaire, Don Bren.

Still, said real estate agent Bill Cote, there have been "a lot of serious people looking at it, but no serious offers." The recession, he said, tends to hit the high-ticket real estate community last, but that community also tends to be the last to recover from it.

Some of the lookers, he said, "are very taken with the fact that it belonged to Joseph Wambaugh," but that doesn't mean that he'll be able to ask for more money as a result.

"The people are too shrewd as buyers in this market," said Cote. "There's a curiosity, and certainly I've advertised the house as belonging to Joseph Wambaugh, but people who can afford this kind of property come with more business acumen. They come with their advisers or attorneys."

Cote said that Wambaugh, who now lives in Rancho Santa Fe, isn't desperate to sell and actually may not have to wait too much longer to do it.

"The market's starting to come back," he said. "People are starting to come out of the woodwork now. For a while, I was lucky to show this place once a week. Now I show it about five times a week."

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