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Architectural icons up for sale

Homes designed by big names such as Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright usually hit the market only rarely and for astronomical amounts. But the housing market slide has changed all that.

September 27, 2009|Lauren Beale

Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House in Los Feliz stands as the largest example of his "textile block" style using patterned concrete. Richard Neutra's Singleton House artfully integrates a modernist structure with its natural setting. John Lautner's Wolff House exemplifies his bold use of wood, glass and stone.

The chance to own such homes has largely been the domain of a wealthy few -- until recently.

The Ennis, Singleton and Wolff houses are all up for sale, along with dozens of others in Southern California by well-known architects. The housing market slide has enlarged the usually scant inventory of big-name architect homes for sale and redefined the premium that such houses used to command.

"I haven't seen so many opportunities in terms of choice and relative value since the '70s," said Crosby Doe, a Beverly Hills real estate agent who has specialized in architectural properties since he sold his first Neutra in 1974. "Three years ago people would call me from all around the world and say, 'I want a Lautner,' and there were none available."

For Steven Ehrlich, the chance to buy a Rudolph Schindler-designed house in Inglewood for $265,000 came unexpectedly.

The Culver City architect discovered the faded Schindler house while attending a dinner party next door. It's one of three Schindler homes on the tidy tree-lined residential street and had sat empty for two years. Built in 1940, the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house had never been substantially upgraded.

"The property needed major work, the landscaping was gone, and the inside was a mess," said Phil Seymour of the Seymour Group, Elite Properties Realty, Beverly Hills, who shared the probate sale listing with Zizi Pak of the same office.

So the pair listed the 981-square-foot contemporary in June at $180,000, the kind of price that a similar no-name house would bear. It drew 35 offers and closed in a month.

Seymour thinks the architect's name generated the intense response that pushed the price up. "It had the cachet of being designed by Mr. Schindler."

The modest, low-slung home has such Schindler details as subtle changes in ceiling heights and his original cabinetry in the living room and bedrooms.

"It's a find," Ehrlich said. "It was very important that we save this house."

A recent sampling of area listings shows scores of homes by architects with followings, including Schindlers priced from $595,000 to $3,995,000, Lautners from $1,495,000 to $5,895,000, and Neutras from $795,000 to $14,995,000. Wright's La Miniatura is listed at $6,950,000 and the Ennis House at $15 million. Although not officially tracked, the inventory is higher than several years ago, said real estate agents who specialize in such houses.

"Usually there's one, and then it's gone," Doe said. "Now there are options."

Following the pattern of the overall market, which has been driven by foreclosure sales and first-time buyers, "the majority of buyers are looking for total bargains," he said.

At the high end of the price range, some sellers are simply biding their time.

"For the most part, these homes are faring well because they have fallen into very strong hands," Doe said. "People understand what they have and are not willing to slash the prices and give them away."

That doesn't mean there aren't some deals out there though, Doe said.

"I just saw a house I sold for $1.4 million -- a Robert Thorgusen that went to foreclosure -- and the bank is asking $859,800. But this is really rare."

Tightened lending and the one-size-fits-all approach to appraisals that have accompanied the market downturn have leveled the playing field, putting the prices of homes akin to works of art on par with plain stucco boxes.

What three years ago might have been a markup of 20% or more may today only translate into a faster sale or multiple offers.

Brian Linder, a real estate agent at the Value of Architecture in Beverly Hills, said he believes the market for good design remains strong.

"However, the lenders are no longer seeing any value in good design," he said. "The banks care about dollars per square foot in the neighborhood -- bedrooms and bathrooms -- that sold in the last three months."

Agents who specialize in these types of properties used to be able to recommend architectural appraisers who could compare similar homes in a wider area.

"Those days are gone," Linder said.

Buyers may perceive the value of the home and be willing to pay the price, he said, but that doesn't mean they can get the lender on board. To close, the buyer will have to make up the difference between what the lender will fund and what the seller is asking.

"It takes more cash to buy these properties after last September and the mortgage meltdown," Doe agreed.

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