An ocean estate to go

Special to The Times

The brochure, all stenciled vellum and panoramic sunset shots, is like something the Santorini tourism board might put out. "To live within this time and place," it tells us, "is to awaken each day to a sense of awe and a salted breeze."

This place of breezy, awesome awakening is White Sails at Crystal Cove, a 600-mansion development in the stretch of beachfront and bluffs known as Crystal Cove, between Newport Beach and Laguna. We read on: "Decades of planning, study and devotion have brought a way of life upon this land and confers upon Crystal Cove a deepened persona."

Instant fortunes, however, confer instant status. And how better to flaunt it than with an instant estate -- predesigned, prefinished, pre-outfitted -- and ready to be moved into in a matter of months. Let's call them the insta-estates. The insta-estate is not to be confused with the McMansion, the colonial job with the too-straight siding and too-black driveway. The insta-estate is about nothing but the best, for those in a hurry.

David Dale Johnson, a professor of business and real estate at USC, said that in the last several years Southern California has led the trend in insta-estates, because housing demand here has "continued unabated," despite a recession in other parts of the economy.

Prices for coastal property in Southern California have doubled in the last five years, making it a necessity for developers to sell more expensive homes. "As land values increase," Johnson said, "typically, the size of the homes and quality of construction will increase." He also pointed to the social benefits of the insta-estate: "The custom home process is a painful one," he said. "It's the source of a lot of broken marriages. Builders joke about it."

White Sails, billed as the premier collection at Crystal Cove, is the work of Taylor Woodrow, a huge British real estate development company with 32 luxury home developments completed or in the works in California, and others in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Canada.

They're not alone. Standard Pacific Homes, responsible for the Oceana collection, also located at Crystal Cove, has 24 communities in L.A. and Orange counties. Standard Pacific will have closed on 1,000 homes by the end of 2003. At Oceana, where residences hover around $2.5 million, seven homes sold in the first 10 minutes the models were open.

According to regional sales manager Todd Palmaer, because Orange County's housing supply has been so limited in recent years, the desire for luxury homes far outpaces the supply. "There is a lot of pent-up demand. Crystal Cove is one of the last places in Southern California where you can buy a new home on the coast."

Roger Menard, president and chief executive of SummerHill Homes, a Northern California outfit with 20 communities, said his customers in the $1-million to $3-million range are mostly empty nesters whose kids are grown up or fortysomething executives. In that price range, he said, customers have an "extreme attention" to detail.

"We're in the process of changing out a $12,000 door because the stain wasn't just right," he said.

Menard calls his highest-priced homes "semi-customs," and explains the difference between his product and a custom builder's home this way: "You would pay 50% more to have the same home built by a custom builder. It's an economy of scale. The custom builder will buy two one-acre lots from a developer. We'll buy 40."

At Crystal Cove, the insta-estate alternative is in full bloom. White Sails offers three choices of mansions, ranging in size from 4,900 to 5,400 square feet and in price from $2.5 million to $3 million, to start. On the low end is Malaga Cove (up to five bedrooms), an angular, guarded little pile that looks like something a very wealthy monk might retire to.

Above that is Casa California (up to six bedrooms) -- the grandest of the three, really -- from which the owner may peer out from his very own brick tower portico.

Finally there is Casablanca (up to seven bedrooms), the only White Sails house elegant enough to warrant one word. Casablanca looks essentially like a bigger Malaga Cove.

But what makes each house distinct, Taylor Woodrow will tell you, are the details. What you are paying for, in addition to the ocean views and private security force (the golf club is an extra $185,000 per year), are the handpicked particulars -- though, happily, not handpicked by you. None of the McMansion's hollow columns and balsa-wood doors here. We're talking about rubbed-bronze drawer handles and inlaid masonry fireplaces. And everything, but everything, can be upgraded.

At Malaga Cove, the massive front door is made from solid slabs of alderwood finished with hammered-iron clavos (the fancy word for really big nailheads). Next to it, leading to the bedrooms upstairs, is an outdoor maple staircase -- available, like all the woodwork in the three houses, in either "glazed toffee" or "glazed fruitwood."

Malaga Cove, whose brochure tagline is "Immerse yourself in style," seems to have been designed with quiet study of the classics and/or whispery Chianti-tasting parties in mind.

The main room is dim, with an arched colonnade with exaggerated Doric capitals placed at eye level and no fewer than six French doors leading onto a patio with its own colonnade -- but this one is of the carved-wood post-and-lintel variety. Outside there is no pool, but instead an intimate, gazebo-type nook with a masonry fireplace and wooden lintels.

Malaga's kitchen, like the kitchens in the other two models, is done to the nines with a Wolf range, a granite-slab counter top on the mammoth 5-by-8-foot island, and a Sub-Zero wine-storage system in the dual butler pantries, which are entered through "Rimini-style" doors. This means that they have big panes of glass in the middle of them. (The refrigerator, strangely, is optional.)

The Malaga's bedrooms upstairs are not anything to run and tell the Socialists about, except for one completely useless and lovely touch: the his-and-her Kohler sinks in the master bathroom (not to be confused with the his-and-her bidets), are available in a beveled, basin-less style that makes you think you're washing your hands in a particularly modish Japanese-fusion supper club.

Next is Casa California. Its brochure says "Welcome to perfection," which may be a touch hyperbolic, but Casa California is, for your money, probably the best deal of the three.

The floor plan has a breezy grandiosity about it, while the separate rooms and hallways feel distinct and private, even a little secretive, as though around the next corner one might find a mumbling viscount shuffling along in his silk robes.

But Casa California's piece de resistance is a dining room with 22-foot-high carved-wood rafters and iron ties that are, charmingly enough, load bearing. From here one looks onto -- through yet more French doors -- a courtyard with a fireplace and happy little exposed-wood windows, and through that onto a 10-foot archway, and through that onto a beveled-edge rectangular pool framed by two palm trees, which, on the other side, frame the Pacific.

After Casa California, Casablanca is something of a disappointment. With all the upgrades and landscaping, it will run you roughly $3.5 million, but it has an un-stirring feel when compared with its direct subordinate. Cramped in its floor plan, more modular and techie in tone, Casablanca seems ideally suited for reclusive software millionaires.

But what it lacks in drama, Casablanca makes up for in its brochure, which reads a bit like a voice-over in a rejected script: "Was it the romance? The authenticity? The allure of the unexpected? Maybe what drew you in was the combination of all these things in a coastal setting."

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