Your House Is a Masterpiece. Why Can't You Sell It?
In the late 1960s, the architect Luis Barragán was commissioned to create an equestrian compound in Mexico City with stables, a four-bedroom main house, riding paddocks, and a shallow pool for horses to refresh themselves.
It was in the latter part of Barragán’s celebrated career (he later won a coveted Pritzker Prize), and the property, called Cuadra San Cristóbal, was adjacent to the exclusive equestrian French Club.
The club is no longer, but the home has been rigorously maintained by the family that commissioned it. Four years ago, they put the property on the market (its current price is $13 million), at which point they were forced to reckon with a conundrum faced by owners of architecturally significant houses around the world: A historically significant architectural pedigree can be a burden, not just a selling point.
Neighborhoods Change; Houses Remain the Same
Thirty years after Cuadra San Cristóbal was built, the equestrian club is gone, and the neighborhood, once upscale, has gone downmarket. “Many of the lots have been fractionated,” said Federica Zanco, the director of the Swiss-based Barragán Foundation. “There are many small-scale houses that are not particularly elegant, and not particularly well kept.”
The owners of Cuadra San Cristóbal opposed the development of structures that would somehow diminish the value of the estate and did their utmost to remain faithful to what Zanco called “one of the masterpieces” of Barragán's life. “They of course are very aware of the importance of their building,” she said. “And they fought hard not to allow some offensive construction in the vicinity, but of course, how long can that go on?” she asked rhetorically. “They want to sell the house, and at a certain moment they have to let go.”
They haven’t yet. “We’ve had some offers, but they don’t want to sell [the house] short,” said Jeronimo Quiroz, the broker representing the property. “There are developers who would love to buy it to tear it down, or turn it into a club house or something like that.” The sellers won't accept those options and are stuck trying to hawk a fancy house in a decidedly unfancy neighborhood.
Potential buyers face a daunting financial calculus: They’d be paying a vast sum (in any city) for a home without the typical services associated with that kind of price. “Really wealthy people in Mexico City tend to cluster around certain areas,” Zanco said. “There are security concerns, and so forth.”
That means a buyer who’s willing to preserve the home probably won’t want to live there. The buyer might be an institution, or it could be a “pool of investors,” Zanco suggested. “It’s worth it, for a wealthy class of Mexicans who are concerned about their cultural future.”
When Maintenance Costs More Than The Purchase Price
Often, the more historic a home, the more problematic its upkeep. In the case of the massive Château d’Aubiry, a 16,000-square-foot, 22-room castle in the south of France that has an greenhouse built by Gustave Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel tower), “every meter you’ll find a new painting, or sculpture, or design,” said Anthony Diaz, the broker representing the home. “It’s not just a castle; it’s an historic monument.” (Indeed, it is listed as such by the French government.)
But all that decoration requires immense amounts of restoration and upkeep and even larger sums of money to do it. The castle is currently on sale for €12.6 million ($13.6 million). And when the owners who put in all that cash want to sell it, they need to do it at a high price to make themselves whole.
Located just a few minutes from the Spanish border, the castle was built in 1903 by the French industrialist Pierre Bardou-Job, who made most of his fortune by selling JOB rolling papers for cigarettes. (“Do you smoke?” asked Diaz. “Well if you did, you’d know his brand.”)
The castle has its own theater, formal dining room, billiard room, and library, and the grounds include a chapel, formal gardens, and a swimming pool.. “Everyone is interested,” said Diaz. “But who can buy it? Only someone who’s very, very rich.”
In 1960, Frank Lloyd Wright built a glassy, 2,600-square-foot home on a little less than four acres in suburban Minneapolis. The house, which is set on a quiet cul-de-sac, has a dramatic, sweeping roof, a grand vaulted main room, and a series of built-in features that are Wright’s trademarks. The same family has lived in the house for more than 50 years. Now they've put it on the market for $1.395 million.
Because of its unbroken stretch of ownership, most of the house’s features have been preserved, which is both a blessing and a curse. “Works by Wright are like living sculptures,” said Barry Berg, the broker who’s co-listing the property. “What was ahead of the curve back then is inevitably—think kitchens or baths—not going to be as expansive or generously appointed as your typical suburban tract home or a mansion that gets built today.”
Buyers of the home, then, might have to make some sacrifices (“sacrifice” being a relative term for having to use a sleek albeit not wildly spacious midcentury bathroom) or risk upsetting preservationists by altering the home’s original layout. “There’s a little bit of a disconnect," Berg said, "where someone might think: 'Is this where I really want to live?”
Countless architecturally significant homes have found buyers whose answers have been a resounding “Yes.” Berg himself has sold a Wright home before (“it took about two weeks to sell, but we had the right buyer,” he said), and there’s been a spate of high-profile home sales in recent months.
“Really, it’s never that easy to sell an architectural masterpiece if it’s not in the right location,” said Zanco, the Barragán Foundation director. “In the end, it’s not always an added value.”