You'd Be Surprised What a Mere $10 MILLION Can Get These Days.

Ann W. O'Neill is a Times staff writer in the San Fernando Valley. She lives in a $200,000 house that used to be worth $250,000

Imagine drifting off to sleep in a revolving round bed that, at the push of buttons, has you facing the Pacific Ocean, under stars revealed by the retractable, 18-foot domed skylight. Or buying an Italian quarry to ensure that the lilac-hued marble floors match. Or building a tennis court off the side of a cliff so there's room for the putting green.

Real people have actually done this. Real people who live in $10-million--and more--houses in Southern California.

There are about two dozen of these palaces scattered from the rocky shores south of Laguna Beach--where Pacific Reflections, the high-tech marvel with the revolving bed, sold a few weeks ago for a reported $14 million--to the promontory overlooking Benedict Canyon, where a speculator is building a $12.5-million villa on the very spot followers of Charles Manson murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others.

"It's not the same house," the broker says hopefully. "It's not even the same dirt."

It's not the same real estate market, either. And so, the house with the 17 bathrooms and a notorious location sits unfinished and unsold, even though the price recently dropped to $8.9 million and the seller is willing to consider a trade.

For 20 years, Southern California's high-end residential real estate market spiraled unchecked into the stratosphere after breaking into double digits for the first time in 1980. Since then, sales at or above $10 million have averaged about one or two a year.

In fact, John Karevoll, financial editor at DataQuick Information Systems in La Jolla, says that while 2,000 million-dollar-plus homes have sold this year in California, only the one has fetched more than $10 million.

Beverly Hills real estate agent Joyce Rey remembers how everyone went gaga when the sale of the Playboy Mansion broke the $1-million mark in 1971. Then, five years later, Rey's company became the talk of the town by selling a nine-acre estate called The Knoll to Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis for a record-breaking $2 million.

Small change compared to the $14.5 million that same house fetched from country singer Kenny Rogers in 1981, or the cool $20.25 million oil billionaire Marvin Davis snapped it up for three years later. And mere peanuts compared to the $47.5 million that entertainment mogul David Geffen paid for the Warner Estate.

"When you think that in 20 years we've gone from $2 million to $47 million, it's a little frightening," says Rey, who was married to the late actor Alejandro Rey and in 1979 co-founded Rodeo Realty, the first company to cater to buyers of million-dollar homes.

In 1990, the $10-million bubble swelled to near bursting, with a half-dozen sales, including Geffen's. After 1993, it popped. Just three sales for more than $10 million have been reported over the past three years. All were outside the Beverly Hills/Bel-Air areas: Andy Granatelli's $14-million sale of his Montecito ranch, which also involved a trade of a Dominican Republic compound; Barbra Streisand's $12.5-million purchase of three blufftop acres near Malibu's Point Dume and the $14-million sale of Pacific Reflections last month.

Even as the Southern California market for mere million-dollar homes shows signs of recovering from six years of grinding recession, most people who live and breathe big-bucks real estate believe Los Angeles itself has probably seen the last of the $10-million sales for a while. "I think those days are gone. They're over," says Beverly Hills real estate broker Cecelia Waeschle, known by her colleagues as "the Keeper of the List." She has tracked every big home sale since 1986, and her list is in high demand in a market where finding similarly priced "comp" properties can be difficult.

With the tightening of cash comes the reduction in flash. "There's no demand right now. People are totally going the other way. They don't want that showy extravagance anymore," she says.

Developer Brian Adler agrees. "My experience is a double digit is a mental block to a real estate broker after everything we've been through in the past few years. You just don't do that," says Adler, who is marketing three new Beverly Park estates, built on speculation and strategically priced at $9.2 million, $9.5 million and $9.8 million. Monthly dues for the homeowner's association run about $1,100 and are used to maintain a four-acre topiary park, landscaping along the boulevard-style streets and the sidewalks in the community that's a leisurely 10-minute drive north of the Beverly Hills Hotel. But the dues haven't deterred people like Pia Zadora, Rod Stewart and Magic Johnson. Denzel Washington is building a massive estate on a double lot.

In response to the soft market, Bruce Nelson, the Bel-Air broker who was involved in more $10-million sales and appeared on more television talk shows than anyone else, has packed away his Hawaiian shirts and sold his canary-yellow Corniche convertible, taking a more subtle approach fitting for a market punch drunk from the recession.

"I thought it wasn't in very good taste," says Nelson, who now dresses in conservative sports jackets and ferries clients around in a sleek, midnight blue Cadillac.

We live in interesting times for the high-end real estate market--uncertain enough to make the most successful agents and brokers subject to sudden mood swings. One day, a broker speaks of the continuing downturn as "the Great Depression." The next, he's chipper, happily predicting, "The good news is we've bottomed out. Land is starting to sell."

Who owns a $10-million house? Not Madonna, although she once offered $15 million for a house in Bel-Air. Cher doesn't have a $10-million house, either, nor do Warren Beatty, Steven Spielberg or Jack Nicholson. Arnold Schwarzenegger? Close, but no Cohiba.

But Barbra Streisand does, and so does Bruce Springsteen.

Across Southern California, only a sprinkling of the rich, famous and not-so-famous own these ultimate, big-ticket status symbols. They are a select group that includes sultans, sheiks, stars and studio heads, tycoons, takeover artists, friends of former President Ronald Reagan and a friend of President Bill Clinton. They paid for the land and, in retrospect, they probably paid too much. The house was a bonus; for an extra million or two, they could fix it up or tear it down. The $10-million list includes:

Ron Burkle (Food 4 Less); oil billionaire Marvin Davis; billionaire Geffen; Mark Hughes (Herbalife); singer Michael Jackson; London financier Robert Manoukian; Dole Food czar David H. Murdock; film producer Jerry Perenchio; Silicon Valley high-tech executive W. J. (Jerry) Sanders III; television producer Aaron Spelling; Springsteen; Streisand; the Sultan of Brunei, the world's richest man; and various members of Saudi Arabia's royal family. Members in emeritus include De Laurentiis, racing legend Granatelli; Hawaiian hotel and casino magnate Chris Hemmeter; oilman Howard Keck; movie producer Ted Field and singer Rogers. (Davis, Geffen, Field, Perenchio, Murdock and Keck also made Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.)

"When you hit the $10-million mark, you're looking at a very limited number of buyers," says agent Waeschle, adding that to buy a $10-million house, you have to have a net worth of at least $100 million. "It's not so much the purchase, it's the upkeep. I have a listing in Bel-Air for $7.9 million--the Tom Jones, Dean Martin house--and every time I go there, there's somebody working, keeping everything nice."

Experts say only about 2,500 people nationwide have the wherewithal to afford such luxurious digs. The buyer of a $10-million house should also be able to pay cash, because most banks won't carry mortgages for more than $3 million. Even then, the monthly payment is likely to be more than what a schoolteacher makes in a year.

Others who didn't make the list may indeed have homes worth more than $10 million. But they haven't yet been bought or sold for that much, and with the high-flying 1980s little more than a fond memory, they aren't likely to any time soon.

The harsh reality is, what was a $10-million house in 1990 now is a $6-million house at best. The proof lies in a handful of transactions since mid-1995. The properties, in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, which once sold for $10 million, sold again for between $5 million and $6 million. And so it comes as no surprise that the wealthiest of the wealthy are sitting on their assets.

Before the real-estate crash, Beverly Hills broker Stephen Shapiro says, clients could count on making a 25% profit simply by living in their houses. But now that some have taken heavy hits in real estate, they're leveraging their remaining equity, liquidating cash for other investments, especially the stock market.

"There's no incentive to sell right now, except for the Three D's--death, divorce and divestiture," says Malibu broker Alan Mark, who had $35 in his pocket when he arrived in Los Angeles 32 years ago and now caters to a select clientele, sometimes on a cellular phone while floating in a canoe a few feet offshore from his beach house.

As a result, at this writing the current Multiple Listing Service shows about 10 homes in Los Angeles County for sale at $10 million or more. Which is not to say that others aren't available. Every broker keeps "pocket listings" of estates to be "quietly shown" to qualified buyers.

As for what qualifies as an estate in Los Angeles, all you need is two acres of flat land in the right ZIP Code, says Beverly Hills broker Jeff Hyland, an expert on local history who co-wrote the text for a $100 coffee table book called "The Estates of Beverly Hills."

The "prime of the prime" estates are ensconced in the impeccably manicured 20 square miles of "the Platinum Triangle"--real estate speak for the communities of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air. Altogether, there are 65 estates, give or take a few, Hyland says. The numbers constantly change as some estates merge with others and some are born anew on the hilltops. The choicest pockets are near Bel-Air's East Gate, along Bellagio and Nimes roads overlooking the Bel-Air Country Club, and in Holmby Hills along South Mapleton Drive overlooking the Los Angeles Country Club.

It is not by accident that so much high-end real estate is clustered in this area. These enclaves were intended for the wealthy from at least 1906, when a syndicate of businessmen and oil millionaires bought up a collection of bean fields and the Rodeo Land & Water Co. announced lots for sale "between the city and the sea" for $900 and up.

Beverly Hills, the first of the developments, was ballyhooed as featuring "a better class of homes," according to a newspaper advertisement that appeared in The Times on Oct. 21, 1906. But plans for "California's showplace" were delayed for about three years by the first of many economic downturns, the Panic of 1907-'08.

Bel-Air's advertising line would be considered sexist today: "The Finest Gift That a Man Can Make to His Family Is a Beautiful Home."

What would become the Platinum Triangle gained cachet during the 1920s, when Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford built "Pickfair," drawing other silent-film stars to the area. But it was Proposition 13 that fostered the real estate boom of the '80s. Proposition 13 passed in 1978, cutting prohibitive land taxes to 1% of the purchase price--in effect, making the land worth more because it wasn't taxed as heavily as before.

The so-called tear-down craze followed. Buyers snapped up lots, tore down the homes on them and erected bigger, more expensive homes that turned tidy profits of at least $1 million each. As a result, the price of land was further inflated. And so, nowhere else can one find so many estates fetching such astronomical prices--even now.

S. Wayne Whited, chief appraiser for The Boston Company, a subsidiary of Mellon Bank that provides mortgages for the very rich, agrees that Los Angeles leads the nation for "the highest concentration of high-end properties."

Here's how the Platinum Triangle stacks up nationally, he says: "Some truly incredible properties in the Aspen area top out at $5 million or $6 million. On the East Coast, we have a lot that are $2 million or $3 million, and some good fives and sixes. That's pretty routine in Newport Beach. But there are only a few areas where you find things up to $10 million--Fairfield County in Connecticut, upper Westchester County [New York], some of the high-end co-ops around Central Park in Manhattan. The only other place you occasionally see them is down in Florida, in West Palm Beach." Even there, he says, a $10-million sale is the rarest of air. "It's an occasional thing."

Consider the top sales in recent years on both coasts: The 14-room Fifth Avenue apartment of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis--certainly the epitome of wealth, class and style--was Manhattan's top sale in 1995, but fetched a comparatively measly $8.75 million. Just months later, Streisand paid $12.5 million for three homes sitting atop a three-acre bluff jutting into the Pacific near Malibu's Point Dume. Hers was the only big sale that year.

So, what does $10 million buy? A couple of acres and stadium-sized mansions with certain "musts" for moguls who have it all and simply must have more: 270-degree views, salmon skin cabinets, art galleries, cantilevered tennis courts, home gyms, carpeted garages, beauty parlors, projection rooms, indoor waterfalls, crystal dining room floors, underground swimming pools, bowling alleys, wolf's head doorbells that howl, as many as 19 bathrooms (including the obligatory his and hers, with wall urinal and bidet) and master bedroom suites bigger than a standard California ranch house.

Then there's the marble, and not just any old marble. One man in Beverly Hills bought a quarry in Italy so that all pieces of the lilac-tinged floor of his cavernous entry hall would match. And a couple in Malibu spent $50,000 on their guest room fireplace, crafted from rare blue Brazilian marble cut from an underwater quarry and hauled through the Amazon jungle.

With the dirt beneath their feet worth more than its weight in gold, some people have gone to extremes to expand their turf.

In Beverly Hills, a man spent a year and a half and millions of dollars carting away a mountaintop, truckload by truckload, to improve his view and expand the grounds of his new Beverly Hills estate to the desired two acres.

Others have trucked dirt in. A man in Bel-Air even hired workers to drill supports 30 feet into bedrock, line the cliffside with caissons, fill the contraption with dirt, move the pool and plant the winter rye.

Having buckets of money to spend does not always guarantee good taste. Forget about cozy; a statement is being made. Inside some homes, visitors can feel like ants tramping through an 18th century dollhouse. In others, they wonder whether they have been swallowed by Moby salmon or lost their way inside James' giant peach.

No Humble Abodes

Location. Location. Location. That's the mantra of the Platinum Triangle, home to four of the last truly great estates (see sidebar) in Los Angeles. But the other big sales have their own stories, too, whether they be about hard-won success, conspicuous consumption or mind-boggling boondoggle.

* Greenacres, Beverly

Hills. Ron Burkle, the man behind the Food 4 Less supermarkets, paid $18 million for the former Harold Lloyd estate in 1993 in what most consider to be the last true $10-million home sale. Built by Lloyd, a silent-screen star, it once was listed for sale at $55 million. The original grounds included a canoe water course, a golf course, a lake and a thatched child's cottage with running hot water. Other features included a palm-lined driveway, a bridge over a stream, a circular oak staircase, pipe organ and gold leaf on the ceiling of the sunken living room. Lloyd died in 1971, and for a year the house served as a museum. But Lloyd had not left enough money to sustain it. The estate was bought in 1976 by a Mideastern investment group for $1.6 million and subdivided, but the main house stood empty until producer Ted Field bought the 40-room, Italian Renaissance-style mansion for $6.5 million a decade later at a court-ordered sale.

*

* Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills. Benedict Canyon is a long way from Thunder Road, but that's where sources say rocker and working-class icon Bruce Springsteen paid nearly $14 million for 41/2 gated, secluded acres in 1990. The property includes a two-story Mediterranean mansion so obscured by trees it can't be seen, even from the air.

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* Beverly Hills. London financier Robert Manoukian, who negotiated the sale of the Beverly Hills Hotel for the Sultan of Brunei, purchased three lots for $10 million in 1988. The parcels include the old James Coburn estate and were the subject of neighborhood protests led by Jack Lemmon and others who opposed plans to build a 60,000-square-foot compound. The neighbors recently won the final court round, and the property is rumored to soon be for sale.

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* Holmby Hills. Few streets ooze money and power more than the 500 block of South Mapleton, where backyards overlook the Los Angeles Country Club. Neighbors include Reagan Kitchen Cabinet members, Hollywood players and the Playboy Mansion. Few houses are more controversial than the Spellings', which draws busloads of craning tourists each day. Aaron Spelling spent $10.25 million in 1983 to buy the old Bing Crosby estate, which he promptly tore down, erecting a 56,000-square-foot manor, complete with gift-wrapping rooms. One oft-told tale about this property: The Spellings intended to name their home "The Manor" and had even erected signs while it was under construction, but the name was abandoned after it became the butt of local jokes. The tax bill is no laughing matter, though: The Spelling abode is assessed at $37 million.

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* Pacific Reflections, Laguna Beach. Contemporary, 11,000-square-foot seaside compound on a one-acre oceanfront bluff sold last month for a reported $14 million, surpassing Orange County's previous record of $11 million. House was once owned by Boyd Jefferies, the stockbroker who landed in jail during the Ivan Boesky scandals. Billed as "007 Heaven," it includes a bridge leading from two motor courts to an octagonal entry rotunda, and a massive door sculpted of steel, copper and brass. The interior gleams with plentiful teak accents and has a glass-and-steel spiral staircase. Perched over the crashing surf are two octagonal "ocean rooms"--the library and the master bedroom. A one-ton marble coffee table anchors the game room.

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* Beverly Hills. This 36,000-square-foot limestone mansion, which was once listed at $35 million, has never been lived in and could use a feng shui master. It sold in 1993 for $11.5 million at a spirited four-hour court-ordered auction but is now owned by a Chinese artist, who paid $6.5 million in January. The house is unfinished and has a checkered history. The original builder went bankrupt. A construction worker died there after tumbling from a scaffold no more than six feet off the ground. A prior owner, said to have owned the first Rolls-Royce dealership in Moscow, disappeared; some suspect he was murdered. Michael Jackson toured it in 1993 and was said to be preparing an offer when his sex scandal became public.

Extras include a disco, two bowling alleys, 19 bathrooms and a clear crystal dining room floor that offers views of the indoor swimming pool below. Its cantilevered tennis court and the one next door overlook Coldwater Canyon park; the outcry over the courts led to new restrictions on tennis courts, building height and lot coverage.

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* Point Dume, Malibu. Barbra Streisand began amassing a second, blufftop compound after giving her 24-acre Ramirez Canyon estate to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Last year, she became the first to break Malibu's $10-million mark, paying about $12.5 million for two homes on three acres near Point Dume with a view of the "Queen's Necklace," the string of coastal lights that twinkle at night along the Santa Monica Bay.

*

* Montecito, near Santa Barbara. Racing great Andy Granatelli two years ago sold his 30,000-square-foot villa on 12 acres for $14 million and an island home in the Dominican Republic.

4 SALE, GR8 VU, NEEDS WORK, $10 MILL, NEGOT.

What's on the market today? The empty, the magnificent, the unfinished, the overpriced and the macabre. There may be plenty of others, but they are unofficial "pocket listings" that agents show only to qualified buyers.

*

* 1441 Angelo Drive, Beverly Hills. Past hairpin turns at the top of Angelo Drive sits an 11,000-square-foot Mediterranean by Wallace Neff, the distinguished architect who designed many of the Platinum Triangle's finest older homes. Once the home of the man who invented the altimeter, the seven-bedroom, five-bathroom house is filled with arched doorways and windows, beamed ceilings, huge fireplaces and finely crafted oak detail. The house and surrounding 20 acres are on the market for $30 million, but be advised, this seller is sitting tight. Several double-digit offers have been rejected over the years.

*

* 10231 Charing Cross Road, Holmby Hills. Huge Italian Palladian mansion was built in 1989 on the lot of the old Jack Benny estate and is just a few doors down from the Playboy Mansion. Asking $20 million. The 20,000-square-foot house on three prime acres is filled with marble details.

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* 10066 Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills. Villa Bella, an 18,000-square-foot Medi-terranean being built on a 3.4-acre promontory, features 14 bedrooms, 17 baths, a disco, wine cellar, seven fireplaces, elevator, waterfall and projection room. But most people still think of it as the site of the Manson murders. A foreign investor almost bought it this year for $12.5 million. Now on the market for $12 million, finished; $8.9 million, unfinished.

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* 1400 Tower Grove, Beverly Hills. The owner is asking $14.95 million for his 20,000-square-foot limestone mansard mansion heavily decorated with European antiques. It has antique pewter fireplaces, silk moire wallpaper, Florentine leather insets in the library ceiling, a 2,000-square-foot master bedroom suite with his and her bathrooms and a one-ton chandelier in the entryway. It was under construction for more than six years, including 18 months spent hauling away the top of a knoll and a home once owned by singer Elton John and producer David O. Selznick. The otherwise spectacular view includes an eyeful of Villa Bella across Benedict Canyon.

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* 930 Stradella Road, Bel-Air. The most expensive--and expansive--two-bed-room house around, this dramatic 9,500-square-foot mansion sits atop a four-acre promontory. It has breathtaking views, rose gardens, a new pool and an outdoor dining terrace. Madonna once offered $8 million for it, but the owner sold to a British noble who since has died. It's on the market for $12 million.

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* 28808 Cliffside Drive, Malibu. The Summer Palace, a newly constructed 11,000-square-foot Spanish-style house with curved walls and glass, sits on an acre and commands a majestic view of Point Dume. For sale for $13.5 million, this home is loaded with imported marble, glass and bronze. The curved glass for the 30-foot windows, mounted in brass and trimmed with mahogany, cost $250,000; the fireplace in the guest bedroom, made of blue Brazilian marble, cost $50,000. The draperies are motorized. Off the silk-wallpapered master bedroom are his and hers baths; the cabinets in hers are lined with refinished salmon skin.

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* 28761 Grayfox Street, Malibu. Estate on nearly two acres near Point Dume includes a Cape Cod-style main house completed in 1991, a two-story guest house and a three-story guest house. Designed by hot architect of the moment Peter Choate, the house, listed for $15 million, includes six bedrooms and 91/2 baths. Owner also has the following house on the market:

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* 1411 Mockingbird Place, Sunset Strip. Newly completed Tuscan villa is listed at $10 million but hasn't been shown to brokers yet. On three acres, the villa offers five bedrooms, 61/2 baths and jetliner views of downtown Los Angeles.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

$10 MILLION SOLD

A list of $10-million sales in the Platinum Triangle, based on information obtained from real estate agents, brokers, appraisers and public records:

BEVERLY HILLS

1981: Schuyler Road, $14.5 million. ($20.25 million, 1984.)

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1988: Sunset Boulevard and adjoining lot, $11.5 million

Bowmont Drive, $10 million.

Tower Road, 3 lots, $10 million.

1990 Angelo Drive, $47.5 million.

Benedict Canyon Drive, $13.75 million.

Mountain Drive, $11.5 million. ($6 million, 1995.)

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1991: Oxford Way, $12.5 million.

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1992: Carolyn Way, $11.5 million.

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1993: Green Acres Drive, $17 million and a ranch in Yucaipa.

Shadow Hill Way, $11.5 million. ($6.5 million, 1996.)

HOLMBY HILLS

1983 South Mapleton Drive, $10.25 milion.

BEL-AIR

1980: Bellagio Road, $12.4 million.

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1986: Bel Air Road, $13.6 million, plus $9 million for adjoining lots.

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1988: Nimes Road, $15 million.

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1990: Nimes Road, $18 million.

Perugia Way and lot next door, $15.5 million. ($5.7 million, 1996.)

Strada Vecchia and lot next door, $11.75 million. ($5 million, 1996.)

Levico Way, $10 million.

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1993: Bellagio Road, $12.5 million.

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