Steven Shane thinks F. Scott Fitzgerald got it wrong. No, Shane said, the rich are not different from you and me.
"Absolutely not," said the Aspen, Colo., real estate broker, who went from selling snowboards to selling ski chalets among the glitterati and other well-heeled types who frequent the town. They’re just normal people, Shane said.
Granted, they may pay millions for homes that they’ll occupy only now and again. Or they may specify that any house they purchase must have a separate servants’ entrance.
And sometimes, the deal-making can turn incredibly complicated — like the sale of a simple duplex that turned into a six-sided transaction worth nearly $12 million overall and involved buyers from the United Kingdom, California and Colorado.
But generally, real estate clients in tony Aspen have the same likes and dislikes — and the same quirks — that agents encounter in less-stratospheric price brackets, he said.
And, Shane said, they’re back. After being singed by the housing downturn, buyers with bucks to spend are tiptoeing back to Aspen, he said in a recent panel discussion of the vacation-home market during the annual conference of the National Association of Real Estate Editors in San Antonio.
So far this year, 18 properties priced at or above $5 million sold in Aspen versus 14 sales at that price point in 2010. Meanwhile, 26 properties in that bracket are under contract, according to his brokerage, SDS Real Estate. In addition, the typically busier summer sales season is now under way, he said.
"Two things have happened," Shane explained in an interview. "There has been an adjustment of the asking prices of homes, probably in the range of 25 to 30 percent, so there are values. But, as importantly, people who have been on the sidelines for a couple of years — high-net-worth homeowners — are ready to get back into the game."
Not that there were many pity parties for Aspen real estate in the aftermath of the bubble: In 2009, Forbes magazine declared the town’s 81611 ZIP code to be the most expensive neighborhood in the country, with a $6.5 million median sales price. Neighboring Snowmass and Snowmass Village also landed on the magazine’s Top 10 of priciest ZIPs.
Still, the magazine reported, the $2 billion in home sales in the area in 2007 had dropped by 50 percent, in volume and dollars, in 2009.
But 2011 is on the upswing, Shane said. First-quarter sales in Pitkin County, home to Aspen, are up 39 percent over the same period in 2010; Aspen leads the county in dollar volume, with more than $58 million in sales.
Wall Street is playing a role in the revival, Shane said.
"People in the financial industry, the private-equity guys, the hedge-fund guys, anybody on Wall Street — they have the wherewithal. They have adjusted financially. They’re comfortable spending," he said.
Among his listings is golfer Greg Norman’s 11,000-acre Seven Lakes Ranch in Meeker, Colo., about 100 miles away (see photos below). Price: $55 million. The estate has been for sale for about a year, and it may be close to a deal, he said.
"I have identified a buyer and we are negotiating," he said.
Shane was the owner of six snowboarding shops in Colorado when in 1994 he thought he spied a more lucrative career, he said.
"In time, it became apparent to me that with the prices of homes in Aspen being as expensive as they were, and understanding that a commission could be made of 2.5 or 3 percent, it would be worth my while to go get a real estate license," he said.
He worked briefly for another brokerage, and then founded his own; the firm now has 22 agents, he said. His personal sales in 2010 were $100 million, he said, including a $31.5 million sale in Aspen.
Despite his insistence that celebrity and ultrawealthy clients are, to use his word, "normal," he admits that some aspects of working in such a high-end niche — ("You might find a studio in Aspen proper as inexpensively as $400,000," he estimated) — can take some getting used to.
"The single greatest hurdle I face is when the buyers see what $1 million buys them," he said. "Then they have to make a determination of whether or not they still want to be here — to push the envelope to spend more money and receive what it is they’re looking for vs. buying something farther away," where the prices drop.
And acting on behalf of clients may mean not working much with the client at all, he said.
"Very often, with high-net-worth buyers and sellers, I start with them, but ultimately I deal with people who they’ve entrusted to help them run either their business or their personal lives," he said.
"With buyers, obviously you’re showing a buyer property, but once I get into a negotiating process, I may be working with their in-house counsel."
One reality of the current market — at any bracket — is that buyers may want to buy, but they must dispose of a current home first. This can get tricky, he said.
"There is a Hollywood producer who had a lot of recent success, and he owned a half-duplex here," Shane said of a recent experience. "He was ready to trade up. He wanted a nicer place."
But Shane said he didn’t see anything on the local multiple listing service at the time that seemed suitable, so he contacted the owner of a place that he knew of and asked if he’d consider selling.
"And he was — the way we got it accomplished was that he took the half-duplex in trade and cash for his home," Shane said.
But that buyer didn’t want to keep the half-duplex, so he asked Shane to sell it for him.
"I knew of someone in London who was looking for a good deal," he said. "I called that buyer and he, in turn, bought the half-duplex, sight unseen."
In dollar terms, he explained, the three transactions — all of which closed on the same day, with Shane representing buyer and seller in each for a total of six transaction "sides" — totaled about $11.9 million.
Obviously, networking plays a critical role in knowing who to reach out to in such a deal. But the overhead costs associated with moving in such circles doesn’t come cheaply, he said.
There are dinners with clients at pricey restaurants, and club memberships, charitable donations, and attendance at charity events, he said.
"Yeah, it’s very unnerving sometimes," he said. "If you want to play with the big dogs, you’ve got to get out there."
So, how much does such a business lifestyle cost?
"Way too much," he said, laughing. "Just ask my wife — it is scary. Believe me, if you’re selling a home to somebody at $5 million, let alone $10 million or $20 million or $30 million, there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t be enjoying any $25 bottle of wine."
Shane is selling Greg Norman’s $55 million Seven Lakes Ranch in Meeker, Colo. (below). Photos courtesy of SDS Real Estate, Aspen, Colo.:
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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