A Billionaire's "Statement House"

Only a handful of folks in the world can afford this 103-room castle, with gold floor, marble driveway, and Queen Elizabeth for a neighbor

Updown Court, a newly built mansion for sale just outside of London, offers plenty of lavish amenities: five swimming pools, eight-limousine garage, and mosaic floor made of 24-karat gold leaf in the downstairs study. The property, however, is best known in Britain for its price tag: more than 70 million British pounds ($134 million). "It could easily break all records for house-selling in this country," says Guy Robinson, an agent with the realtor Savills, which is showing the property.

Heck, if Updown Court fetches that price, it would make the 40,000-square-foot house the most expensive home ever sold, according to real estate agents. The current world record for a private residence is believed to go to London-based steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, who reportedly spent 70 million pounds last year for a 12-bedroom townhouse near Kensington Palace in West London.


  Developer Leslie Allen-Vercoe says a recent softening of the London housing market will probably have no effect on the sale of Updown Court. The target customers, superrich Arab, Russian, and Chinese high rollers who want a home in England, stay largely insulated from the vagaries of financial cycles. "The house has been designed for a specific market, which is the billionaire market, as opposed to the millionaire market," Allen-Vercoe says.

In fact, London and its surrounding countryside remain among the priciest real estate markets in the world. The locale has long attracted rich international buyers looking for a safe investment, says Liam Bailey, head of residential real estate at Knight Frank. Yet while the market for homes priced above $7.5 million has proven strong around the capital lately, Bailey says there are simply too few sales in the $40 million-plus range to assess trends in demand. "At that level, it's about a particular house," Bailey says.

What does Updown Court have to offer the international billionaire? Start with size and opulence. The main house and two guesthouses comprise 60,000 square feet of living area. Among the 103 rooms are 22 bedrooms, each with its own marble bathroom.


  The property comes with 58 acres of land in the exclusive village of Windlesham, 25 miles outside of London. Neighbors include the Duchess of York, Elton John, and, at nearby Windsor Castle, the Queen. The grounds boast 11 acres of landscaped gardens, stables for five horses, a tennis court, and space for a helipad.

Occupants can further divert themselves in the squash court, poolroom, two-lane bowling alley, and 50-seat cinema. Security-conscious owners will appreciate the walk-in safe and windowless "panic suite," which will shortly be fitted with a mini-kitchen and steel door.

Although the interior will remain unfinished until April -- on a recent tour workers were still swarming about -- the existing furnishings convey a money-is-no-object approach to design.


  The entrance hall features a sweeping dual staircase modeled after one in the late fashion designer Gianni Versace's Miami home. Behind the staircase, a great hall supported by marble columns looks onto an ornamental pond, which holds a fountain that, at the flick of a switch, sprays water 200 feet in the air.

Marble abounds. Five acres of more than 30 different types of imported stone line the floors, driveway, and expansive terraces. One indoor swimming pool is styled as a Roman bath, while the other is set off by a two-story stone mosaic depicting a snow-capped Mount Fuji.

"It's a statement house," says Allen-Vercoe.


  Indeed, many in Britain say it makes too much of a statement. "It's perfectly ghastly. Who needs five swimming pools?" says Andrew Langton, an agent with the London realtor Aylesford who specializes in the luxury market and doubts elite buyers will gravitate toward such a property. "I don't see where the market is," he says.

Even optimistic conjecture suggests the pool of potential buyers is small. Allen-Vercoe says the world's known billionaires number around 600, and another 600 exist, unknown. He's betting that one of that rarefied group will want to live in Updown Court.

The original Updown Court, a former residence of Prince Sami Gayed of Egypt, was built in 1924 and severely damaged in a fire in 1987. Construction on the current building began in 2000 but halted in 2001, when Custom & Excise officials seized it as part of an investigation into the dealings of its owner at that time. In 2002, Allen-Vercoe bought the property, then a shell, for the equivalent of $38.4 million. He says he has invested $57 million into it since, with the backing of an Irish bank.

As for whether the property merits the price, Allen-Vercoe points out that luxury apartments in fancy London neighborhoods sell for $3,800 a square foot. By that guideline, Updown Court would cost $230 million. "We're substantially below that," he says. A $134 million bargain or a pricey folly? The market will tell.

By Beth Carney in London

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