The Saga of One House: From $50,000 to $5 Million

THE PRICES on Westside homes aren't set by omnipotent real estate czars. They're set by buyers, who, after all, are the ultimate arbiters of any asking price.

Take the case of one house. In Brentwood Park, it was a vitamin magnate whose rambunctious kids fell in love with a slide in the backyard that pushed 409 N. Bristol into the multimillion-dollar price range. Ironically, Theodore Negrin and his wife, Marsha, had lived in modest apartments as children, and just a dozen years ago they were grateful to be able to afford the two-bedroom West Los Angeles condominium they were living in. They had to borrow the money to make the down payment on the place.

The 11,000-square-foot house on 1.25 acres that the Negrins now own was built in 1955 by a member of the prominent Doheny family for roughly $50,000. Today, Realtors say the property is worth $5 million.

Yet even $50,000 was a considered a steep price 33 years ago, when homes north of Sunset Boulevard were going for $30,000 to $40,000 and lots sold for $15,000. But this house was special. It was built on a double lot and included such features as a reinforced basement for earthquake protection, a bomb shelter, seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms.

During the next 20 years, the value of the house increased tenfold, attracting a price of $525,000 from singer Tony Orlando and his wife, Elaine, in 1976. In those days, half-million-dollar homes were unusual; million-dollar homes were practically nonexistent.

Elaine Orlando estimates that she spent at least $500,000 establishing the house's Country English style inside, and aided by the Orlando's efforts and strong inflation, the house appreciated dramatically over the next eight years. The value of other high-end homes also increased substantially in the 1970s. Where it once might have taken two decades for an estate to appreciate 900%, as this house did, now it might take a little more than one decade.

In 1984, the Orlandos put the house on the market with an overly ambitious asking price of $4.7 million. Home prices on the Westside were particularly hard-hit in the early 1980s, and 1984 was still a weak year for that market. According to estimates compiled by the Real Estate Research Council of Southern California, an arm of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, prices in the Westside-Santa Monica corridor dropped in 1983 and were flat in 1984 and 1985.

The Bristol Street house was on the market for six months before the Negrins toured it and fell in love with its spacious rooms and yard, but balked at the price. They owned a house in Bel-Air (which they bought for $207,500 in 1977 and sold for $567,500 eight years later, after investing about $100,000 in the property), but they wanted something bigger. After spending years as a business broker, Negrin had become a rich man in the wholesale vitamin business, and by 1984, the Negrins were ready to break into the estate market.

They considered buying two adjacent homes in Brentwood Park for $2.7 million and tearing them down. To build a new home on that property would have cost another $1 million. Their daughter, Penny Negrin, a sales agent with Fred Sands Realtors, persuaded them to see the Orlando house. The price was high, but after three months of negotiations, the sellers finally agreed to a lower price--$2.6 million--and the Negrins moved into a sedate neighborhood full of Hollywood history. Shirley Temple grew up in a house just around the corner. Down the street from the Negrins is the house that was made notorious in the book about Joan Crawford, "Mommie Dearest."

While the Westside market under-performed other parts of Los Angeles County between 1983 and 1985, it was a top performer in 1986 and 1987. As a result, if the Negrins decided to sell their home, Realtors say the price today would be near $5 million. That would be another 900% increase--this time in only 13 years. Contrasted with nationwide prices, that is an astounding appreciation rate. Figures compiled by the National Assn. of Realtors show that home prices nationwide increased 141% between 1975 and 1987; home prices in the 13 Western states increased 172% during that period.

"People want to live on the Westside," says Nadine McNulty, a Fred Sands Realtor who has been in the business 22 years and was the listing agent for the Orlandos. "And money seems to be no object."

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