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Home sweet home or merely a teardown?

On the Westside, what one person might see as a gem of a house, another sees as an obstacle in the way of a gargantuan new dwelling.

January 17, 2013|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • The phenomenon of the teardown -- in which massive homes are built where modest ones once stood -- seems to be returning to the Westside.
The phenomenon of the teardown -- in which massive homes are built where… (Los Angeles Times )

The courtyard patio at the classic California Spanish house was ringed by camellia bushes. In the living room, the fireplace boasted genuine Malibu tile and in the dining room, the original thin-planked oak floors gleamed.

Listed for sale at $2.6 million, the immaculately maintained, three-bedroom home — a blend of traditional and modern stylings in one of Santa Monica's toniest neighborhoods — could go either way: to a family who falls in love with its character. Or to a builder, as a teardown.

"It's a tweener," real estate agent John Hathorn said Sunday. "We're seeing both buyers."

This celery-green Spanish with the barrel tile roof was among three properties with open houses Sunday on the Westside. Judging by the crowds, the real estate downturn on the Westside, if it ever existed, is over. Hordes showed up for each viewing, complaining that almost nothing was on the market.

Spaniard Mila Jimenez said she and her husband could get more for their money on the Westside than in Madrid or Amsterdam. An older couple from Mandeville Canyon wanted to relocate where they could buy a loaf of bread without mounting an overland expedition. Several viewers were eager to live near their workplaces to avoid the Westside's horrendous traffic.

Judging by the number of empty lots on the Westside with cranes idled over piles of dirt, the teardown phenomenon is also revving back up. This comes as no surprise. The reasons for teardowns are simple: Somebody thinks they can make more money or live better by knocking down a house and building a newer, bigger and shinier one. Way bigger: many of the new houses are gargantuan, built out as close as they can get to the lot lines to maximize resale value down the line.

What was eye-popping were the prices people will pay for the privilege of ripping down a home. One Brentwood fixer-upper featured misbegotten design choices such as square bathroom tile in a light mauve and a gaping Jacuzzi tub. The fireplaces in the living room and bedroom were hung with rusty chain curtains, and mold was growing on the garage ceiling. It was listed at $1.5 million.

"I hope that comes with a bulldozer," said one viewer.

A young man in commercial real estate named Farz said the house had "potential." Clutching his girlfriend Tina's hand, Farz said you could start by putting in a second floor, then "three or five years down the line, tear it down and built it up again." Tina, a physician, agreed, saying she's living with her family nearby and wants to remain in the area.

Up close, teardowns make economic sense. A two-physician couple pushing a bubbly 4-month-old in a stroller explained that with interest rates under 3%, mortgage payments on a million-dollar property would be roughly equivalent to rents in Brentwood and Santa Monica, $3,000 to $4,000 a month. Building a new home can be cheaper than renovating.

But stepping back, it's striking to realize that while tens of thousands of people who lost in the recession are still fighting to hang on to their homes, others are lining up to tear them down. L.A. real estate spans two worlds: one in which owning a house — any house — is the dream of a lifetime, and another in which a house is just a nuisance.

A few streets away from the fixer-upper, a charming Cape Cod-style house — white, with a picket fence and dormer windows — was also listed at $1.5 million.

A psychology professional and a physician had lived in the home. It was in impeccable repair and full of loving details. A framed copy of an ode a son had written to the couple's marriage hung on the wall. A Chinese elm shaded the brick patio, and a kelly green lawn sloped deep and wide back to a thicket of citrus and other trees.

But it, too, faced at least the possibility of being torn down, though the agent, Dolly Niemann, said its chances were probably better than many other homes of its vintage.

However, a potential bidder had already asked about removing the tree out back, suggesting demolition is on the table.

Back at the Santa Monica Spanish open house, an Anna-Wintouresque real estate woman in giant sunglasses dropped by and opined that the celery-colored house was doomed.

"It's under-built for the neighborhood," she said. "The kitchen is nothing."

"Two words, it's not functional, and it's not for modern living," her male business partner said (they declined to be identified, saying they're well-known in Westside real estate circles.)

Sure, if your routine includes yoga classes, boot camp, charity balls, cocktail parties, volunteer work, school drop-offs and pickups, your wardrobe is not going to fit in 1930s-scale closets. Not to mention the shoes.

The house next door to the Spanish already sold as a teardown. Its replacement, a humongous oblong building, looms over its neighbor, blocking out air and sun.

Granted in Santa Monica, replacement houses are often more artfully designed. Hathorn said the latest thing in teardown replacements are traditional features such as coffered ceilings and wainscoting.

But even the professionals sometimes feel a twinge: Saundra lives in Brentwood and works in real estate so she gets the teardown calculus. She showed up at the showing of the Cape Cod house, which she thinks is so cute she often drives past just to view it. But she was horrified it might go as a teardown.

"That would be so sad," she said.

gale.holland@latimes.com

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