When they sold it nearly 20 years ago, the Regency home was the most expensive to ever change hands in Douglas County. At $1.5 million, agents Jody Fike and Sharon Marvin recalled, the sprawling Witherspoon mansion came adorned with gold swan faucets, fountains and a Japanese garden.
Today, the NP Dodge Real Estate duo again are listing a place that sits atop the list of priciest houses in the Omaha area market. Only this $3.9 million Linden Estates abode, while certainly built to impress, has less imported glitz and more casual spaces.
"It's interesting to see how styles change," Fike said while standing in the lofty hallway of her latest client. "They're still very ornate with wood carvings and moldings, but more livable, more family-oriented."
Something else besides price and style is changing in the luxury housing segment: Interest is picking up, particularly for those in the half-million-to-million-dollar range.
The number of deals closed on homes above $500,000 rose nearly 30 percent this summer over last. While the actual numbers are relatively small (18 sold in the past three months) several real estate agents say they haven't seen as much activity or showings in that premier market for years.
Sellers aren't waiting as long, either, for a buyer to walk through their door. The half-million-dollar-and-above house that sold in August stayed on the market an average of 82 days, compared with 129 the same month a year earlier, according to an analysis by NP Dodge.
So far in 2011, at least 124 deals closed on houses with prices above $500,000, compared with 108 last year during the first eight months.
The uptick comes as transactions in all price ranges improved last month. A new report from the Omaha Area Board of Realtors showed a 7.5 percent increase in the number of homes that went under contract last month — 943, up from 877 in July.
Driving much of the activity, said outgoing board president Vince Leisey, are historically low interest rates on mortgages and a continued oversupply of for-sale properties that has pushed down prices.
He said it's not been unusual for a seller to accept a price reduction of up to 25 percent, compared with three or four years ago.
Agent Deb Cizek of Prudential Ambassador Real Estate said activity around the million-dollar price range "has really heated up." She brokered two such deals last week.
Cizek sees the momentum as less of an economic revival than a sign that consumers are adjusting to the reality of today's market. She said sellers who are serious about shaking loose their higher-end homes are dropping prices, and buyers are seizing the moment. One client recently cut his $1.25 million asking price by $250,000, and the property sold quickly.
On the flip side, said Cizek, those sellers are getting "phenomenal" buys on their next bigger and better house.
She and other real estate agents said that the buyers in the higher socioeconomic stratum aren't as constrained by today's struggling economy, so when they see a hot deal that was unheard of a few years ago, they tend to pounce.
These are corporate executives, business owners and established professionals, Leisey said. "They've got more financial stability than the average person."
For some, the investments represent further stability. Angenette Meaney of Omaha said the crazy swings in the stock market made her more of a believer that investing in a house was the way to go. She and husband Bob just purchased their dream retirement home closer to family on the East Coast.
The Meaneys, who have lived in Omaha 17 years, are asking $825,000 for the home they raised three children in at 8804 Westover Road. Angenette said traffic to see the house has picked up since Labor Day, and two other neighborhood homes recently sold.
"At the end of the day, when you've come home from work, how you feel about the place you go is really what matters," said Angenette. "It is worth paying for."
To be sure, the two $3.9 million Linden Estates homes that top the most expensive on the Great Plains Realtors Multiple Listing Service are not the typical local homes for sale. The two are just about a block from each other near 144th Street and West Dodge Road
A peek at last week's listings showed those and a Waterloo property as the only ones for sale in the upper $3 million range. Three other listings ranged between $2 million and 3 million, and nearly 40 others were selling for between $1 million and $2 million.
The number of area homes for sale in the range of $500,000 to $1 million was 230.
Even the most palatial properties have seen a welcome surge of attention.
Just last week, Larry Rosso of Prudential showed the $3.9 million mansion at 14243 Hamilton St. to international business clients considering a move to Omaha. A half-dozen people, including Chinese interpreters, participated in the tour of the 23,000-square-foot property marked by a large fountain out front and a resort-style swimming pool.
Rosso calls the home — originally built for Pizza Hut franchisee Joseph Mandolfo and now owned by Gregory and Jennifer Rutherford of Tagge Rutherford Financial Group — the "trophy house of Omaha."
It's been featured on the national MTV program "Teen Cribs," which showcases elaborate homes where teenagers live. The Omaha segment, Rosso said, showed one of the Rutherford teens hanging with friends in the two-lane bowling alley and 11-seat home theater.
Admittedly, said Rosso of Prudential, a mansion with 13 bathrooms, six bedrooms, a wine cellar and cabana room is beyond reach for most locals. But to out-of-towners accustomed to housing for the richer and famous, he said, that price tag on that much property can sound "very inexpensive."
An entrepreneur from Texas remains interested, Rosso said, but his move depends on shifting his business here. With today's Internet virtual tours, houses can be seen by a vast audience. Consequently, Rosso has fielded inquiries from overseas as well as states as far away as California and New York.
The more typical high-end home, agents said, sells today for between $400,000 and $1 million. And they don't spare splendor, either.
Most in that category have theater-seating media rooms, granite countertops, multiple fireplaces, hardwood or stone floors, grand entrances, a swimming pool and features that allow in lots of natural light.
Timeless staples of an upper-end home, said Marvin and Fike, remain square footage and location in plush neighborhoods including Fairacres, Regency, the Ridges, West Shores, Linden Estates and Eagle Run.
Mike Riedmann, president of residential sales for NP Dodge, said his team sold five lots this summer in the $450,000-and-up Five Fountains subdivision. That was more than they sold there all of last year. Plus, four more lots are on hold.
"It just happened, boom, within a couple of weeks," Riedmann said.
He said that even buyers with more discretionary income are paying attention to today's remarkably low interest rates. Many likely had been waiting and became convinced that the deal might not get any sweeter.
The local rise in residential sales comes amid declining consumer confidence nationally. Gallup's late August confidence readings were the lowest since March 2009, when consumer attitudes had barely started to recover from the deep lows recorded during the 2008 Wall Street crisis.
Joe Valenti, president of CBS-Home Real Estate, said Omaha shouldn't be compared to national trends because the recession and housing doldrums did not hit the local area as hard. Unemployment rates here are lower, he noted. And Nebraskans have been heartened by good news such as the Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad turning up its hiring again.
"Omaha is in a different situation when it comes to housing," Valenti said. "It's not all negative."
Marvin agrees and attributes the recent rise in home sales to general optimism among local residents. "People in Omaha are relatively optimistic about the city and where it's going."
She and Fike, who have been real estate partners for two decades, said they've listed homes for $100,000 but deal most in the higher-end market. They once listed a mansion for $7 million.
For a home on the extreme upper end of the market — such as the $3.9 million mansion she and Fife are trying to sell at 14349 Hamilton St. — the timing of a sale is less predictable.
Built in 1996 for Omaha businessman Ken Stinson and his wife, Ann, the 2.45-acre property has six fireplaces, six bedrooms, five garage spaces, a pool and exercise and media rooms. The Stinsons, who have raised six children, just purchased a condo in Midtown Crossing, Marvin said, and have another home in California.
Despite the extravagant price tag, Marvin remains optimistic. Just last week, she and Fike showed the property to the owner of a local start-up company. She said the right buyer would be a person who wants to entertain yet values the comfortable setting.
"It depends on who is in town, who is looking," Marvin said.
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