Lost among dream homes in Rancho Santa Fe

Many mansions

It's an exclusive neighborhood, home to Joan Kroc and Jenny Craig, where “entry level’’ homes sell for $1 to $1.2 million and golf club memberships cost between $25,000 and $110,000.
  • It's an exclusive neighborhood, home to Joan Kroc and Jenny Craig, where “entry level’’ homes sell for $1 to $1.2 million and golf club memberships cost between $25,000 and $110,000.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

I’m pacing through Dream Homes, gazing at glossy photographs of million-dollar estates. Stately tree-lined drives, sparkling Olympic-sized pools, and towering Mediterranean mansions. They are “spectacular,” “secluded,” “elegant,” “stunnging,” “sophisticated,” “romantic,” and “breathtaking”—so say their captions.

According to San Diego-based AcxionVltataQuick Information Systems, sales of such “dream homes” are skyrocketing. Last year, million-dollar home purchases in California rose more than 40 percent, as a total of 3762 residences, costing $1 million or more, changed hands. Nearly a third of the dream home buyers — executives, entrepreneurs, physicians, computer geniuses, foreign investors, and trust-fund babies — paid cash. The rest proffered down payments averaging $400,000.

Cathy McCall, a top-selling real estate agent at Coldwell Banker, offers to take me on a tour of some dream homes in Rancho Santa Fe, a community that, last year (aside from Beverly Hills), boasted the highest number of luxury home sales in California. It's an exclusive neighborhood, home to Joan Kroc and Jenny Craig, where “entry level’’ homes sell for $1 to $1.2 million and golf club memberships cost between $25,000 and $110,000.

I meet Cathy at her Coldwell Banker office in Rancho Santa Fe. She’s an attractive blonde — a svelte, sophisticated Doris Day and a consummate professional. She has worked in the real estate biz for 20 years and specializes in land development deals and luxury home sales.

Cathy invites me to attend “Caravan,” an afternoon of “for-the-trade” open-house showings, during which agents inspect local inventory. We drive along Rancho's shaded thoroughfares, and I watch the glossy magazine photographs come to life — horse ranches, sprawling estates, orange groves, palm-lined drives. As a former Berkeleyite, I feel guilty ogling the properties. I know I should curl my lip and mutter about bourgeois excess, but the blue sky, scent of oranges, and nodding horses overpower this urge.

Before Caravan, we stop at a hulking 9200-square-foot, seven-bedroom Colonial mansion just north of the Covenant, near a horse-training facility, which is selling for $ 1,625,000. We remove our shoes at the front door and go inside. The house is vacant, and its living room rug is bouncy-plush. I expect dream home luxury, but, as we wander through the house’s rooms, I am struck by the building's mediocrity. Its floor plan is rambling, its rooms are small, and a second-story carpet is old and stained. This mansion is no spiffier than the “nonluxury homes” I’ve visited. I am disappointed.

Cathy's business partner, Judy Land, and her buyer's agent, Angie Finnerty, accompany us on Caravan. We take Cathy’s Lexus to our first destination in the Covenant, Rancho Santa Fe’s elite 6200-acre development that’s existed since 1927. Its homes are set back far from its tree-shaded streets, and its acreage is almost rural. This is not a “showy" neighborhood like its southern sister, Fairbanks Ranch. It's a quiet, inconspicuous enclave of very expensive rustic homes. I am eager to explore them.

Cathy, Judy, and Angie discuss deals-in-progress as we pass the rolling hills of the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Course and turn in to the driveway of a 1950s-style ranch engulfed by bougainvillea.

“It’s a great location,” Cathy says. “Right in the middle of the Covenant. Kids can walk to school from here."

We enter the home and are greeted by the showing agent, a short, jocular woman. She hands us flyers that show the house’s asking price: $1,295,000. I look around at the well-worn furniture, ornate 1950s artwork, dreary linoleum-and-faux-wood kitchen, and old, discolored yellow shag rug in the living room, and conclude that this, too, is not a dream home. It's just priced like one.

As the agents chat, I wander down the home’s narrow halls and peck into modest-sized bedrooms. They are cheaply furnished — drooping ruffled bedspreads, pre-Reagan veneer bedsteads. On a bureau is a photograph of an older man with a broad, friendly face. He looks rugged — like his house. I wonder why he is selling it. It feels strange to be in his home, because, unlike the first empty house, there is so much “him" here. The agents and I walk outside.

“There’s room for horses here," the showing agent says, gesturing to a raised expanse of land nearby. “And the pool’s over there.”

Halfheartedly we walk the grounds before driving away. “That’s a teardown," one of my hosts says. “Someone will knock it down, rebuild, start all over."

Our next Caravan stop, also near the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Course, is even more disconcerting. Definitely not a dream home. As we drive up the steep driveway toward a single-level white ranch listed for $1,285,000, Cathy says, “Oh, it’s the Spiro house." There is a moment of silence in the car.

“That’s the guy who killed his wife and kids, what was it, three years ago?" someone asks from the back seat. I regard the house as Cathy cuts the engine.

The “Spiro Incident” was Rancho's second most highly publicized tragedy, after the Heaven's Gate debacle last year. Both incidents involved renters in a suburb overwhelmingly inhabited by homeowners. Six years ago, in the house I was about to enter, British commodities dealer Ian Spiro shot his wife, Gail, 41, and three children, Sara, 16, Adam, 14, and Dina, 11, before driving to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and swallowing cyanide. His body was found in his Ford Explorer on November 5,1992. He had been renting this house for $5000 a month.

“The Spiro house" looks gloomy from the outside. I imagine that a psychic would say it had “depressed energy." Cathy, Judy, and Angie debate whether the home’s showing agent is required to tell potential buyers what transpired in the house. “I think she has to,” Cathy says. "Anyway, I would.” The showing agent greets us as we enter the living room, which is decorated in a busy Oriental motif. Although the room is filled with flowers, both real and fabric, the ambiance is unsettling. Two agents chat with the showing agent near the couch.

“This is going to be a hard sell," someone says once the showing agent is out of earshot.

The seven of us explore the rooms, and a visiting agent falls into stride beside me. “The home’s been blessed more than once by a feng shui master,” she says. “But I don’t know if it’s helped."

We enter the master bedroom. “It happened here," the visiting agent says. “That’s where he shot his wife, on the bed.” We stare at the bed, even though I think we all realize that it’s not The Bed.

Then, one by one, we file out of the room and visit the children’s bedrooms. I try to stop the images that flood my mind. Minutes later, I walk past the white-tiled kitchen, to the house’s back yard, and stare at the large pool. Even its waters look chilly, cold-blue, and very uninviting to me.

The showing agent later tells us that three families, all renters, have lived in the home since the murders. “But the property owner hasn’t lived here,” she says.

I ask myself whether I feel creepy because I know what happened here or because the house has “bad energy," as Dionne Warwick might say.

As we depart, an agent states the obvious: “It needs to be torn down."

By now I have grown skeptical about dream homes. But our next Caravan stop renews my flagging faith. We head west, toward a huge Mediterranean villa that is selling for $2,795,000. “It’s a little aggressively priced," Cathy says, “but it’s a great property. The owner’s made about $200,000 worth of improvements." We motor down its tree-lined private road toward the home, where a battalion of expensive cars is already parked.

Inside is dream home nirvana. Although the house is only partly furnished, what remains is tasteful and elegant. Crisp sisal carpeting, trendy Tex-Mex chairs and tables. A gaggle of agents enjoys a mini-banquet of chicken salad, fresh bread, brownies, and soda in the gourmet kitchen, where a fire is crackling in a Southwestern-style fireplace beside the dinette. A small transistor radio on a nearby counter plays soothing music. Outside the kitchen’s spacious windows is an inviting pool and huge tropical garden.

An elegant, dark-haired woman, probably in her 40s, dressed fashionably in black, introduces herself as the showing agent. She is perfectly cast to sell this house. Most of the agents assembled in the room seem to know her. They make small talk as they finish their midday snacks.

“I hope an executive comes out here quick and snaps it up," a young agent remarks.

“You’re right, this’ll go fast," says another.

Soon the agents disperse, some exploring the home’s upstairs rooms, others touring the expansive ground floor. I walk through the Mexican-tiled hallways, across the living room to the mahogany-ceilinged study, before visiting the second floor, which has a limestone-countered bathroom and a 24- by 16- foot master bedroom. Agents pass me, walking briskly through the room, occasionally commenting aloud about impressive details. On the bedstead is a framed photograph of a trim, sweet-faced fiftyish man with his arm around an attractive twentyish woman.

“I think that’s his wife," the young agent comments from behind me, reading my mind.

I am very impressed with this dream home, and if I had $2,795,000 in petty cash. I’d return to the kitchen and make an offer.

Now Cathy takes us to Fairbanks Ranch, the Covenant's flashier, younger neighbor. Its land had been originally purchased by Douglas Fairbanks in 1924. Today it is the gated home of about 600 families. Ozymandian manses on perfectly manicured lawns line the broad, open streets. I marvel at the potpourri of architectural styles: English Tudors, Italian villas. Contemporary, French Country, California ranches, and Spanish Mediterranean casas grandes. Some look like vast hotels. Others simply look surreal. “It’s nouveau riche,” an agent had told me earlier when I asked about Fairbanks Ranch. “When people make money here, they want you to know it. But the Covenant is the opposite. You can't even see the houses, they’re so set back from the road."

A Lincoln, Cadillac, and Buick 98 are parked in the driveway of the first Fairbanks dream home we visit, which is located on a quiet street in the northernmost area of Fairbanks Ranch. Agents gather at the door, greeting each other with hugs. They compliment a frosted blonde who has just gotten a new haircut.

Although the house’s Country French exterior is unremarkable (somewhat anomalous for Fairbanks), its interior is spacious and Old World elegant. From a flyer that the showing agent hands me, I learn that this house is 5606 square feet, has five bedrooms, and is sited on 1.82 acres. The living room has cathedral ceilings. The master bathroom looks like a five-star hotel powder room. The property has been reduced in price from $1639,500 to a modest $1,599,000.

Old black-and-white family photographs line the walls and grace desktops. A turn-of-the-century wedding photo. A decades-old photo of an Eastern European clan. Children’s grade school photos. On a small bookshelf are rows of medical books.

It is now late in the day. We drive just a few blocks to a broad cul-de-sac and briefly visit a single-story Spanish-style home listed for “between $869,000 and $998,876.” The showing agent stands in its dark, unfurnished living room, handing out flyers. She looks bored with her task. The home’s walls are Pepto-pink, and its carpeting is old and brown. There’s a tiny loft down the hallway and a back room that sports a cheap looking beamed ceiling.

We discover that the house has no back doors. To access its back yard, one must go out the front door and travel round the house. A tall, balding agent in a rakish suit arrives at the front door. He strides quickly past me, eyeing the walk and carpeting. He scowls, then, noticing me, asks, “Where’s the back door?” I tell him the bad news. He shakes his head sadly and turns to leave.

We bid hasty farewells to the showing agent and once again head toward Cathy’s Lexus.

“That sure is an ugly house,” a visiting agent says as she walks toward her car.

"It’s a teardown,” I say helpfully.

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