To get a sense of the rarefied world of Santa Barbara real estate, one need only look to the recent moves of Dick Wolf. The Law & Order creator bought a house years back in the area's tony neighborhood of Montecito, where the neighbors include Ivan Reitman, Jeff Bridges, Robert Zemeckis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Google exec chairman Eric Schmidt (who bought Ellen DeGeneres' house for $20 million in 2007) and Oprah Winfrey (whose Georgian estate was appraised in 2008 at $85 million).
One thing Wolf apparently found lacking was a suitable driveway. So in 2010, he purchased an adjacent house for $5.5 million. Set on two acres, the six-bedroom residence was built by architect George Washington Smith around 1923 in Santa Barbara's signature Spanish Colonial Revival style. Over the last year, as THR has learned, the show creator made extensive improvements to it and, natch, installed a driveway on the east side of the property leading to his own house. He's now looking to off-load the George Washington Smith for $9 million. According to the county planning office, Wolf has most likely set up an easement that will exclude the new owners from access to his new driveway.
While Wolf's pursuits have flown below the radar, Santa Barbara -- which offers those looking to buy second houses distinct charms, from beachfront estates to pastoral hideaways in the hills -- has seen a number of headline-generating sales and listings in the past 12 months or so. Two new part-time residents are George Lucas and Drew Barrymore, both of whom bought houses a year ago. Barrymore, recently engaged to art adviser Will Kopelman, purchased a five-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot, 1937 Monterey Colonial-style house in Montecito for $5.7 million, while Lucas snapped up a six-bedroom contemporary on the beach not far away for around $19 million. It sits on 1.7 acres with 150 feet of beachfront near a house owned by Kevin Costner. "I gather he's going to tear it down and build something more appropriate to him," says Montecito Journal society columnist Richard Mineards.
In September, Rob Lowe and his jewelry designer wife, Sheryl -- who built a Georgian-style, 20-room mansion with four kitchens in Montecito 2½ years ago -- sold a beachfront second house in Summerland for $5.9 million.
But headline-generating transfers can't mask the fact that the market, just as in Los Angeles, continues to lose ground. For 2011, the median list price in Montecito was $1.35 million, down almost 7 percent from $1.45 million the year before. "Prices are still going down and are at least 30 to 40 percent off from what they were at their peak," says Sotheby's International Realty's Lisa Loiacono. "The buyers have control over this market. There are not a lot of people dropping millions and millions, and the people who are buying are very cautious."
Indeed, in December, Dennis Miller reportedly chopped the price of his 10,000-square-foot, 1895 Stanford White-designed house 14 percent, from $17.5 million to $15 million. Diandra Douglas, the first wife of Michael Douglas, has a seven-bedroom 1920s Italian villa on the market for $19.5 million that was previously listed at $24 million and, before that, $29 million. She recently rented it to Don Johnson. For buyers looking for a more modern abode, director Michael Bay is selling his contemporary three-bedroom for $6 million, down from an original ask of $6.8 million. And a six-bedroom, American Colonial-influenced mansion that was presented as Paula Abdul's "house" for The X Factor's outdoor performances was recently pulled off the market. It had been for sale at $32.5 million.
Despite the presence of so many high-profile names, residents say that Santa Barbara -- about a 90-minute drive from L.A., with a new $63 million airport terminal that welcomes private jets -- is still an easygoing coastal town. Says Sheryl Lowe: "The locals are so used to seeing Rob, his fame is not an issue here. He knows everybody at Starbucks. We don't have paparazzi up here unless there's some kind of big event."
Exhibit K, of course, was Kim Kardashian's pap-swarmed, ill-fated wedding in August at the Mediterranean compound of venture capitalist Frank Caufield. Facing a barrage of criticism over the event, which prompted 20 phone calls to police about loud music, helicopters and traffic, the county is re-evaluating how it handles such affairs. Locals also grumble about Dodgers bidder and The Grove owner Rick Caruso, whose plans to renovate the Miramar Beach Hotel, which has become an eyesore, have long been stalled. Caruso recently got approval for a scaled-down plan but says he has yet to come up with full financing.
Other listings of note include a jaw-droppingly cantilevered modern house, dubbed the Glass Pavilion. It was built by Steve Hermann, who has designed houses owned by Christina Aguilera and Courteney Cox, and is for sale at $20 million. Actor Christopher Lloyd is about to list a newly built Mediterranean for around $6 million. The Back to the Future star lost his previous property on the site to a 2008 wildfire. He rebuilt on five acres a four-bedroom styled after an Umbrian villa, complete with a bocce court. Downtown near the Old Mission is a 5,400-square-foot Greco-Roman villa, unusual for the area, that just came on the market at $6.8 million. Its owners, Rowland Hanson, a branding specialist and former vp of corporate communications at Microsoft, and wife Mary, an interior designer, bought the 1910 property, a historic landmark, for around $2.7 million. The couple spent five years and about $4 million restoring it.
Realtors are hopeful that prices will rebound in 2012. "It's a ripe time to buy. Five years from now, people will go, 'I wish I had invested in Santa Barbara back then,' " says Prudential California Realty agent Paul Hurst, co-listing agent on the Hanson residence. Adds Sotheby's International Realty's Sandy Stahl: "I think the market is getting energized, especially in the 3-to-6-million range. I just put my most pessimistic client, who was talking about a bubble two years before it happened, into escrow on a property."
One factor that always will be in the Santa Barbara market's favor is that it is snugly nestled between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. That and tight zoning restrictions mean that the area can grow only so much. "There is always more demand than supply, and the type of clientele up here is in a position where they can hold their houses through any kind of market," says Sheryl Lowe, adding, "I get phone calls all the time from realtors asking, 'Would you be interested in showing your house?' But it's not for sale."
S.B.'S MONTECITO ENCLAVE BY THE NUMBERS: The neighborhood, a 10,000-resident unincorporated area, commands Santa Barbara County's highest prices, with 30 houses now on the market for more than $10 million each
- 2010 Median Price: $1.45 million
2011 Median Price: $1.35 million (-7%)
THE COAST'S MOST COVETED ESTATE: Odd heiress Huguette Clark left conflicting wills and a property she hadn't seen since 1963 worth $50 million-plus.
Bello Sguardo, the Santa Barbara estate of the late copper heiress Huguette Clark, has been the subject of local fascination for decades. Meaning "beautiful view" in Italian, Bellosguardo sits on 23 acres overlooking the Pacific, with a 21,666-square-foot, multi-winged mansion designed by renowned architect Reginald Johnson. Clark, a recluse who spent perhaps the last 40 years of her life in a New York hospital and who spared no expense on her lavish doll collection, had not visited the property since 1963, though her caretakers have meticulously kept it up. When she died in May at 104 with a fortune estimated at $400 million and no direct heirs, it appeared that the property might come on the market for the first time since her father bought it in 1923. (A few years ago, Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner, owner of the nearby Four Seasons Biltmore, allegedly made a $100 million offer on it that was rejected by Clark.) But with two conflicting wills and lawsuits flying between Clark's family and her attorney and her accountant -- who have been accused of elder exploitation and recently were suspended by a New York court for failing to file tax returns -- its fate is up in the air. One of the wills, the one that cut out Clark's relatives, decreed that Bellosguardo be converted into a museum for her art collection. "It's quiet, no neighbors, but there might be a creep factor as it's right next to the Santa Barbara cemetery," says Prudential agent Paul Hurst. "It could be $100 million at the height of the market, but maybe $50 to $60 million now for uniqueness." -- Jeanie Pyun