Tear Down those Nice Houses

September 6, 2007

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I wish I were a member of the growing juggernaut of elite achievers who can afford to buy beautiful houses in wonderful areas then raze the structures and build something much grander.  This whole process either bespeaks a society of great wealth, energy, and imagination or foretells doom on the scale of sybaritic Romans who overate so their throats could be tickled with feathers to purge stomachs for more feasting.  Unabashedly, I admit that the former explanation is likely correct, and only meager wage earners like myself are satisfied with, and utterly limited to, moving into a place and living in it as is.

Recently I have seen and read about many vigorous home buyers who aren’t really buying a home but the land under doomed dwellings.  The supreme example of inspired crushing and rebuilding comes from the world’s most compelling athlete, Tiger Woods.  When Tiger is in contention, an otherwise dreary golf tournament becomes great drama.  His rewards have been commensurate with his talent, and the 31-year old now earns more than $100 million a year.  In 2005 he bought an estate north of Miami on Jupiter Island, “the world’s most expensive zip code,” for about $54 million.  There are four houses on the lush seaside property, and the 25,000-square foot main house, a shack by the Tiger standard, has been slated for demolition.  The fate of the two guest houses and beach residence has not been revealed.  It will probably suffice to augment, rather than destroy, the two docks poised to host the golfer’s 153-foot yacht, Privacy.

Frenetic California has more smash-and-build buyers than any other state.  As a former reader of the Hot Property feature in the Los Angeles Times real estate section, I was often awed when actors and actresses, directors, producers, publicists, and hairdressers came in and flattened a place most would consider a palace.  Admittedly, compared to Tiger these entertainment employees were in the low-rent district, having jacked up a meager several million bucks, but their visionary zeal was commendable.

Sometimes, inevitably, the seller is aggrieved by the destruction, but what can she do.  In the late 1980’s Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, at the suggestion of their real estate agent, had left autographed copies of books they’d written during a decade in their Brentwood residence.  The literary gifts may have helped consummate the deal, but a year later, when the buyer leveled her beloved home, Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking that she felt like returning to reclaim her books.

Many people in stately Hancock Park, a few miles west of downtown Los Angeles, are aghast that buyers have been moving in and not only tearing down unique homes built decades ago but replacing them with sterile 6,000-square foot barns shoehorned into small lots and glaring down on everyone around.  Space is less critical in communities like Atherton and Los Altos Hills south of San Francisco.  The rapidly rich computer phenoms from the Silicon Valley often live there, and before moving in they have more authoritative versions of a conversation I had with a home-building supervisor in 2000.

“About how much does it cost to move into this part of Los Altos Hills?” I asked.

“A minimum of three to five million, but there aren’t many of those,” he said.

“What’s the maximum?”

“There is no maximum.”

“How much would this house cost?” I asked, referring to the four-bedroom hilltop house where I was spending the weekend.

“No one would buy this house.  They’d buy the land and build something nice.  This property has one of the best views in the area.”

In early August I visited my hometown Sacramento and decided to drive around some of my former neighborhoods.  In upscale Sierra Oaks, nestled against the levee of the American River east of town, the old has often been superseded by the new.  Numerous large wooden houses I’d admired as a kid have disappeared and in their stead stand stone or stucco or brick residences that, on large lots, look well-designed and appropriate.  Unfortunately, the Hancock Park model was used across the street from the house where I lived from fourth grade through high school.  In the late 1960’s our neighbors enlivened their claustrophobic backyard by installing a jewel of a swimming pool.  Now the water’s gone and a garage provides an awkward base for an incongruous second floor window leering across the way.

Rebuilding is most common in affluent neighborhoods but not confined there.  In forlorn North Sacramento, where I lived (not always prudently) for 14 years, an occasional nice new home has been built where a shabby one existed.  This is also happening near downtown in economically-challenged Oak Park where on the western perimeter they’re building some homes and remodeling others, and asking prices like $350,000 for a two bedroom place that, frankly, is within a Tiger Woods lag putt of distinctly dangerous areas.

Ultimately, I’m probably envious of the rich, the affluent and even the stable lower-middle class, and the consistently good decisions they’ve made about financial matters.  Unlike them, I’ve three times squandered real estate equity and other assets and currently cannot buy even a creaky house in a bad Bakersfield neighborhood.  California is much too pricey for those who either altogether missed or unwisely bailed out of the real estate skyrocket.  There is an option for people in my position.  It’s called renting.  The Golden State is going to have an increasing percentage of people writing monthly checks to landlords, and so will other states that grow rapidly and become popular and therefore expensive.

George Thomas Clark

George Thomas Clark is the author of Hitler Here, a biographical novel published in India and the Czech Republic as well as the United States. His commentaries for GeorgeThomasClark.com are read in more than 50 countries a month.

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