If you think it’s tough to find a buyer for grandma’s silver and the family china, imagine trying to unload an expensive old house with a butler’s pantry and a foyer too fancy for muddy boots and dirty dogs.
For five years, Mark Perrin has been trying to sell one of the most beautiful houses in Minneapolis, a 10,000-square-foot mansion on Mount Curve Avenue. It is now priced at $3.1 million, half his original asking price and below what he paid for it.
“It boggles my mind,” Perrin said. “You get to the point where it just gets silly.”
More homes changed hands in the Twin Cities this year than ever before, and transactions of $1 million and more also set records. But at that exclusive level — the homes most people can only dream about — something is changing: Houses that couldn’t be replicated today are sitting unsold as well-to-do buyers seek technology over turrets and perfection over patina.
“I scratch my head sometimes because I think they’re bypassing far superior structures,” said Barry Berg, who was in the top 10 among Twin Cities sales agents by sales volume last year. “These older homes will be standing long after a lot of what’s being built today.”
The new-wave affluent shoppers want homes that represent their success, not someone else’s. They favor homes with the latest accoutrements, even if wrapped in a new house with traditional elements. Tops on the shopping list are big windows and open floor plans.
“When someone has that kind of money and wants to put it into real estate, it’s about creating their own dream,” said Meredith Howell, an agent who represents some of the most expensive homes on Lake Minnetonka.
No listing better illustrates the challenges that come with selling an heirloom house than Southways, a 13-acre estate on Lake Minnetonka that would fit right in on “Downton Abbey,” the British drama set in a 200-year-old country manor.
With 32,000 square feet of living space and 1,700 feet of shoreline, the stone-and-brick home was built more than a century ago as a summer getaway for the Pillsbury family. They were served by an army of cooks and housekeepers, and the house reflects that with a clear division between formal and informal spaces.
After Eleanor Pillsbury died in 1991 at 104, the house was bought by James Jundt, a former hedge fund manager and onetime Minnesota Vikings co-owner, and his wife, Joann.
The Jundts hired the New York architectural firm that did the restorations of Ellis Island and Grand Central Station and spent tens of millions of dollars to bring the house up to 21st century standards.
When the couple decided to downsize about a decade ago, they listed Southways at $54 million, the most expensive house in Minnesota at the time. Though the property garnered international attention, it didn’t sell. So the couple hired a Chicago firm to auction the house intact, or as five developable lots. Still, no takers.
Given the quality and history of the house, the Jundts contemplated turning it into some kind of museum, but access to the property down a narrow road through one of the most rarefied neighborhoods in the metro put that plan on the skids.
Today, nearly a decade after first hitting the market, the home is priced under $25 million, a fraction of what it could cost to build something comparable.
Howell said that while the buyer pool shrinks as the price goes up, there’s no shortage of people who could afford Southways. It’s far from the most expensive property in the area.
“That’s a credit to our economy,” she said. “We have an environment where people are creating companies and it’s good enough at the top that people are making money.”
There are a growing number of homes worth $10 million to $20 million in the metro area. Many of those replaced houses that already were worth several million. On Lake Minnetonka’s Browns Bay, for example, two houses listed for more than $4 million each were torn down and replaced with more expensive digs. On nearby Grays Bay, a 5,000-square-foot house listed for $1.6 million was replaced with an 8,700-square-foot house.
Mark Parrish, a sales agent with Sotheby’s International Realty, said that a growing number of upper-bracket homes are being purchased or built by people in their 40s and early 50s. For them, he said, the size of the house is less important than the layout and amenities. Buyers want attached, heated garages and kitchens that are open to dining and living areas. And decked-out laundry rooms are more attractive than a formal dining room with a butler’s pantry.
“With every generation, there’s going to be a different trend,” Parrish said. “Now, it’s open, sleek and modern with less clutter.”
Upper-end homes always take longer to sell than those that are closer to the market median. At the very top, the scarcity of comparable homes means that pricing is part art and part science. Agents are often at the mercy of their clients, who are sometimes out of touch with what’s happening in the market.
“You have to balance the relative demand in the market and the taste of buyers,” Berg said. “But you have to balance that against a lot of factors including what a seller has put into the property, which is sometimes irrelevant and has nothing to do with fair market value.”
Berg’s team has been trying for three years to find a buyer for one of the most famous houses in the Twin Cities: the three-story Victorian on Kenwood Parkway in Minneapolis that portrayed Mary’s home on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
When the 9,500-square-foot house was first listed in 2012, it was priced around $3 million, slightly above what its current owners paid for it in 2007. Today, it’s available for just under $2 million.
About a mile away, uphill and closer to downtown is the home on Mount Curve. Perrin says he’s stopped counting how much he has spent on the property. He bought the adjacent lots that were originally part of the estate and repatriated them with the property. He flew in an out-of-state expert to help transform part of the basement into a home theater and was able to track down several priceless architectural elements that had been taken from the house.
Jennifer Kirby, the agent who has the Perrin listing, said that selling a house in Minneapolis can be challenging because there’s a perception that when you factor in property taxes and lot sizes, you get a better value in the suburbs. Of the 22 houses that have sold for more than $3 million in the Twin Cities so far this year, 19 have been on Lake Minnetonka.
“Even rich people care about their money,” Kirby said. “There are plenty of people who have the money, but we’re competing with Lake Minnetonka.”
Perrin, an executive with a biotech company, said that when he bought the house, he was well aware of its tax and maintenance costs. But five years after deciding to sell, he said it’s becoming more painful to write a $75,000 check for the property tax.
Still, the memories of the parties and family gatherings that happened in the house are priceless.
“It’s a jewel that needs to be shared,” he said.