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Architectural gems up for sale

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House in Los Feliz stands as the largest example of his "textile block" style using patterned concrete. Richard Neutra's Singleton House artfully integrates a modernist structure with its natural setting. John Lautner's Wolff House exemplifies his bold use of wood, glass and stone.

The chance to own such homes has largely been the domain of a wealthy few -- until recently.

The Ennis, Singleton and Wolff houses are all up for sale, along with dozens of others in Southern California by well-known architects. The housing market slide has enlarged the usually scant inventory of big-name architect homes for sale and redefined the premium that such houses used to command.

"I haven't seen so many opportunities in terms of choice and relative value since the '70s," said Crosby Doe, a Beverly Hills real estate agent who has specialized in architectural properties since he sold his first Neutra in 1974. "Three years ago people would call me from all around the world and say, 'I want a Lautner,' and there were none available."

For Steven Ehrlich, the chance to buy a Rudolph Schindler-designed house in Inglewood for $265,000 came unexpectedly.

The Culver City architect discovered the faded Schindler house while attending a dinner party next door. It's one of three Schindler homes on the tidy tree-lined residential street and had sat empty for two years. Built in 1940, the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house had never been substantially upgraded.

"The property needed major work, the landscaping was gone, and the inside was a mess," said Phil Seymour of the Seymour Group, Elite Properties Realty, Beverly Hills, who shared the probate sale listing with Zizi Pak of the same office.

So the pair listed the 981-square-foot contemporary in June at $180,000, the kind of price that a similar no-name house would bear. It drew 35 offers and closed in a month.

Seymour thinks the architect's name generated the intense response that pushed the price up. "It had the cachet of being designed by Mr. Schindler."

The modest, low-slung home has such Schindler details as subtle changes in ceiling heights and his original cabinetry in the living room and bedrooms.

"It's a find," Ehrlich said. "It was very important that we save this house."

A recent sampling of area listings shows scores of homes by architects with followings, including Schindlers priced from $595,000 to $3,995,000, Lautners from $1,495,000 to $5,895,000, and Neutras from $795,000 to $14,995,000. Wright's La Miniatura is listed at $6,950,000 and the Ennis House at $15 million. Although not officially tracked, the inventory is higher than several years ago, said real estate agents who specialize in such houses.

"Usually there's one, and then it's gone," Doe said. "Now there are options."

Following the pattern of the overall market, which has been driven by foreclosure sales and first-time buyers, "the majority of buyers are looking for total bargains," he said.

At the high end of the price range, some sellers are simply biding their time.

"For the most part, these homes are faring well because they have fallen into very strong hands," Doe said. "People understand what they have and are not willing to slash the prices and give them away."

That doesn't mean there aren't some deals out there though, Doe said.

"I just saw a house I sold for $1.4 million -- a Robert Thorgusen that went to foreclosure -- and the bank is asking $859,800. But this is really rare."

Tightened lending and the one-size-fits-all approach to appraisals that have accompanied the market downturn have leveled the playing field, putting the prices of homes akin to works of art on par with plain stucco boxes.

What three years ago might have been a markup of 20% or more may today only translate into a faster sale or multiple offers.

Brian Linder, a real estate agent at the Value of Architecture in Beverly Hills, said he believes the market for good design remains strong.

"However, the lenders are no longer seeing any value in good design," he said. "The banks care about dollars per square foot in the neighborhood -- bedrooms and bathrooms -- that sold in the last three months."

Agents who specialize in these types of properties used to be able to recommend architectural appraisers who could compare similar homes in a wider area.

"Those days are gone," Linder said.

Buyers may perceive the value of the home and be willing to pay the price, he said, but that doesn't mean they can get the lender on board. To close, the buyer will have to make up the difference between what the lender will fund and what the seller is asking.

"It takes more cash to buy these properties after last September and the mortgage meltdown," Doe agreed.

Linder is selling a Westwood condominium designed by Neutra in a development where the previous two units of the same size sold quickly for more than list price with multiple offers. Although the two-bedroom, 1,353-square-foot condo was priced at $795,000, a generic unit in the same neighborhood would be worth $650,000 to the bank, he said.

This one was on the market a couple of weeks, received one offer and is in escrow below list price.

"That's not what I would have expected based on the previous sales," Linder said.

"Two years ago, I'd be trying to set the premium," he said, by adding 20% or 25% over comparable sales. "Now I try to come on the market right away at an attractive price that will generate multiple offers."

The auction sale of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 21 in the Hollywood Hills in late 2006 for more than $3 million "was the oh-my-God benchmark" for architectural premiums, Linder said.

"The house, after all, measures just 1,300 square feet," he said. "Most properties of its size in that neighborhood would have sold as a tear-down."

The counterpoint to that event was the failed sale in May 2008 of Neutra's Kaufmann House and an adjoining orchard in Palm Springs for more than $19 million.

"All eyes in the architectural world were upon that auction," said Doe, but the sale fell through. "It put a pause in the market."

Five months later, the five-bedroom, six-bathroom, glass-sheathed modernist masterpiece of 3,162 square feet was listed for about $6 million less. But the market by then was vastly different. The Kaufmann House was taken off the market.

Today, Barry Sloane of Sotheby's International Realty, Beverly Hills, gauges the architectural premium by less tangible measurements.

He sold Neutra's 1934 Sten-Frenke residence in Santa Monica this month for $4.7 million. The three-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bathroom home, a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, came on the market in January at $5,999,000.

"The premium translates into the deal going through rather than selling higher," he said.

But not every architectural home is being snapped up, even among those that rarely reach the market, such as houses by brothers Charles and Henry Greene.

Maggie Navarro of Coldwell Banker, Pasadena, had the listing on the Greene & Greene-designed Spinks House, which was taken off the market in late summer.

"My seller got discouraged," Navarro said. "We had great showings, people loved the house, and then they didn't write an offer."

The 1906 Pasadena house with six bedrooms and six bathrooms in more than 5,000 square feet was listed at $4,625,000.

"Those Greene & Greenes attract a real specific audience, and unfortunately most of the people who love them can't afford them," she said.

As for the dollar premium once associated with architectural homes, Linder doesn't expect it to return in the current market and, in fact, thinks prices haven't found the bottom yet.

"If you can afford to wait," he said, "there probably will be better deals to be had."

lauren.beale@latimes.com

Living in a nest egg? Homes may not be as good an investment for the future as they have been, experts say. BUSINESS, B1

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