Beverly Hills · Malibu


Beverly Hills · Malibu

WEA in the NY Times

Real estate and celebrities both produce some of the biggest jolts on the seismograph of cultural obsessions. Decimal points, swank details and aerial photos are routinely dispensed like so many dollops of osetra caviar into the gaping mouths of peasants.

But when it comes to celebrities in pursuit of real estate, the “how” can be just as compelling as the “what.”

In the popular imagination, celebrities like to move in phalanx formation. But brokers to the stars say that while most of them dispatch an emissary to winnow down the possibilities — and often, extract a written vow of confidentiality from the broker — not all celebrities bring entourages to view property after the winnowing process.

Actors and actresses are more likely to venture out alone or with one or two companions, whereas music-industry types often travel with retinues of one or more personal assistants, friends, a decorator, a spiritual adviser or feng shui consultant, and a gunslinging bodyguard or two. Though groupie deference usually prevails, one naysayer can nix a property.

“I would say they feel pretty free to chime in,” said Jade Mills, a director at Coldwell Banker Previews Estates in Beverly Hills. Diane Saatchi, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group East End in East Hampton, N.Y., said it is not uncommon for a celebrity’s companions to anticipate the star’s innermost needs, as in, “Can she use the bathroom?”

Their fame allows celebrities to indulge in idiosyncrasies that probably wouldn’t be accommodated in a regular buyer.

“I had one very well known actor who, anytime he liked an apartment, he would ask the sellers to leave and we would order in dinner or lunch,” said Michele Kleier, chairwoman of the Manhattan brokerage firm Gumley Haft Kleier, who noted that owners were generally delighted to comply.

“We had to have a meal there, because he wanted to know what it felt like to live there,” she added. And she recalled that “when I worked with John Travolta, he would take his shoes off and lie on the master bed to see what the view would be if he were waking up there in the morning.”

In their hothouse bubble, celebrities sometimes fail to tone down their Technicolor image when necessary.

Dolly Lenz, a vice chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman in New York, said she once advised Mariah Carey to arrive for an interview with a Manhattan building’s co-op board “dressed for a funeral.” She appeared “in a halter top and mini-mini-miniskirt,” Ms. Lenz recalled.

“I said, ‘I told you to come dressed for a funeral,’ ” Ms. Lenz said. “She said, ‘This is the way I dress for a funeral.’ ” She was not approved.

While they may be able to blend into crowded city streets, celebrities possess a Kryptonite-like ability to transform a showing into a swooning. There was, for instance, the 30-something female owner who fainted dead away upon opening the door to Robert Redford, a former client of Ms. Lenz.

A different seller was so enamored of another Lenz client, Barbra Streisand, that on her third visit to a Central Park West apartment “he started singing to her on his knee, proposed, and said she could have the apartment,” Ms. Lenz recalled. “He was a nice man but it was really the most bizarre experience. She was a great sport about it.” Other famous clients, including Madonna, insist on a closed set: apartments must be cleared of owners, employees and children before the star will set foot inside.

It is worth noting that many brokers described their celebrity clients as shrewd businesspeople (though almost universally tardy) who can be very down to earth. Particularly humble househunters include Luke Wilson (recently bought a second floor walk-up in the East Village); Billy Joel (wears boat shoes and shorts in 50 degree weather); Geena Davis; Donald Sutherland; Woody Allen (enjoyed giving personal tours of his East 92nd Street town house, which eventually sold for $24.5 million); Harrison Ford; and Richard Gere.

One upside to working with the famous is the rapid clip at which many cycle through properties.”They move coasts, wives, husbands, in and out of everything,” Ms. Lenz said.

A celebrity’s income, unlike a doctor’s or corporate executive’s, can spike wildly from year to year, particularly among those who work in television and live from one 13-week commitment to another. “As soon as they take the next step upward into a new earning category, they want to reward themselves with a new house,” said Stephen Shapiro, chairman of the Westside Estate Agency in Beverly Hills.

The urge to stay one step ahead of the bus tour of Hollywood celebrities’ homes can provoke a change of domiciles; the quick-churn world of celebrity romance also spawns a fertile resale market.

Mr. Shapiro and Ms. Mills are co-brokers in the sale of probably the most famous abandoned love nest on the market right now: the 10,000-square-foot Beverly Hills manse lovingly renovated by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston at the peak of their earning power and amour. (The estate, recently reduced to $24.95 million from $28 million, includes a pool, sauna, screening room, artist’s studio, tennis court and two-story closet.)

Some brokers say their peripatetic celebrity clients are merely looking for Chez Right.

Nelson Gonzalez, a senior vice president of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell’s Miami Beach office, said that one of his clients, Cher, is shopping for her fourth property there in 13 years. “She’s looking for the perfect thing,” he said. “She bought three to five houses in Aspen before she settled on the one she really, really wanted. It’s sort of the same thing here.”

In an extreme case of celebrity house-flipping, the actor Frankie Muniz (who starred in the television show “Malcolm in the Middle” and the “Agent Cody Banks” films) bought three homes within eight months last year in the Bird Streets neighborhood of Hollywood, all within four-tenths of a mile of a house he already owned, said his broker, Mr. Shapiro’s son, Max, also of the Westside Estate Agency in Beverly Hills.

Mr. Muniz lived in one for just two weeks before deciding he didn’t like it. “The cheapest cost $3.5 million,” said Max Shapiro, who said his client lost money on some of the transactions but profited over all.

When it comes time to sell a celebrity property, brokers and their clients weigh the financial benefits of publicizing the property’s provenance against the loss of privacy and the inevitable stream of curious gawkers.

“Generally speaking, I don’t think the trade-off is large enough,” said Patricia Warburg Cliff, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group in Manhattan. Like other brokers, she sweeps a celebrity residence free of “photos, Academy Awards, stuff like that.”

Some brokers go further. “You can make it a pocket listing,” Mr. Shapiro said of the super stealthy tactic whereby even a property stripped of its owner’s name isn’t put into the public listings. “You tell a select amount of clients or Realtors, and if no one buys it, then you advise them to publicly list it. You do things like hire a security guard for the open house, and take away all pictures and personal items.”

While brokers are accustomed to operating behind a veil of privacy, some complained about having to pierce the veil of budget haze surrounding their clients, a common occupational hazard.

“The celebrities get into a mode where they’re making a lot of money and they just don’t have any conception about the fact that if they’re making $10 million on a movie, $5 million goes to taxes and $2 million to managers or whoever,” said Joseph A. Babajian, chairman of the estates division of Prudential California Realty. “They end up with $3 million and a lifestyle of $200,000 a month and think they can afford a second or third house for $5 million.”

Some brokers said they contact a star’s business manager as early as possible to avoid misunderstandings.”Business managers have put the kibosh on a lot of things,” said Barbara Fox, president of the Fox Residential Group in Manhattan. These Oz-like figures also refer most celebrity clients to brokers in the first place.

So what do celebrities want in a property? Basically, something that provokes a drooling response from ordinary mortals and comes with an extra helping of privacy.

Brokers say that the latest magnets in New York are buildings designed by celebrity architects.

“There’s a real appreciation for Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel and Philip Johnson,” said Wilbur Gonzalez, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group in New York, who is also the sales manager for 40 Mercer Residences, the glassy offspring of Mr. Nouvel and the hotelier André Balazs. “Celebrities are really drawn to that. As silly as it sounds, it’s from one artist to another.”

Another common denominator is a desire for privacy. In Los Angeles, celebrities seek homes behind gated driveways, among neighbors not especially wowed by the proximity of fame. In the Hamptons, the ideal location is often a beach front property hidden behind a dune, while in Malibu, in California, with its more easily accessible beaches, some celebrities buy “off the beach, where they have a couple of acres and can have their own compound,” said Chris Cortazzo, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Malibu.

In Manhattan, a discreet domicile is likely to be inside a condominium tower with two street exits and an underground garage. (At the celebrity-strafed Time Warner Center complex near Central Park, for example, the staff has been known to refer to a passage connecting an elevator to the garage as “the Ricky Martin hallway,” in honor of the singer, who is regularly besieged by fans when he is in residence.)

“I would say, generally speaking, that the penthouse” — one with unobstructed views, to rule out peepers — “is the apartment of choice,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

The desire for privacy also drives celebrities to cluster together, apparently in the belief that a copse of exotic trees is less obvious than a single one.

In Los Angeles, the so-called Bird Streets, with names like Swallow and Mockingbird, have emerged as one of the hottest areas of the past few years, drawing Hollywood hipsters including Keanu Reeves, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Miami Beach is another celebrity pocket, particularly along the exclusive North Bay Road with its Biscayne Bay-side location. The singer Lenny Kravitz recently made an unsuccessful offer on a $40 million estate there after repeated tours of the property’s nine-story observation tower, which he occupied for several hours at a time, according to the property’s listing agent, said Mr. Gonzalez of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell.

The unusual demands don’t seem to bother brokers, who like the contact high.

“Most of them are celebrities for a reason,” Ms. Kleier said. “They have charisma, they generally are a lot of fun to be with, they have personality, they’re adorable and you forgive them anything.”

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