Hold On to That Mansion: Values of Priciest Homes Keep Falling

The country's most expensive houses are having the hardest time selling as the recession shaves millions off their prices.
The country's most expensive houses are having the hardest time selling as the recession shaves millions off their prices.

The signs of life creeping into the nation's real-estate market haven't yet trickled up to the most expensive housing markets in the country.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Aspen, Colo., the bellwether market for the second and third mansions of the rich and famous, where an "employee housing" unit just went on the market for $1.45 million.

A new report shows the median sales price of a home in this ski town dropped by $1 million to $5.1 million last year from 2008. Also, homes on sale for more than $20 million seem to be sitting on the market longer. Right now, Aspen has 19 homes for sale in that price range, and most likely also a host of others that aren't officially listed.

"Sales have slowed down over the last couple of years since [the housing market] peak, and values are down between 20% and 40%," says report author Randy Gold of the Aspen Appraisal Group. "We are certainly bouncing around the bottom right now."

Cool Market for Expensive Metro Homes

And it's not just Aspen, either. A Zillow.com survey of the most expensive metropolitan markets shows a similar, although less dramatic, trend. Average home values in San Jose, Calif., dropped from $750,000 to $550,000 in the past year, and values in Manhattan and San Francisco also both showed declines, albeit less dramatic ones than in Aspen.

For some perspective, the median price of homes in the U.S. stayed flat over the past year at about $180,000. Michael Englund, chief economist at Action Economics, says that while the foreclosure mortgage issues at the lower end of the housing market show signs of having played themselves out, the top end is still getting beaten up.

Investors continue to be reluctant to buy expensive homes, he says. "There are concerns from high end investors about a potential increase in the tax rate and imbalance in federal government spending," Englund says, "plus some concerns about the debt-rate problems overseas and whether it means we're next." Also, wealthy international investors are reeling from diminishing exchange rates as the dollar strengthens.

Not Many Deals in the Vineyard

Meanwhile, housing values in exclusive Martha's Vineyard, Mass., also have fallen, but not as precipitously as other high-end areas. Tom Wallace, a realtor with Wallace & Co. Sotheby's International Realty in Martha's Vineyard, says homeowners are simply holding on to their properties, waiting for the market to turn around.

"It used to be that you bought into Martha's Vineyard and traded up to a nicer home several years later," Wallace says. "These days, people are holding on to their properties longer or passing them on to their children."

Even though there's no skiing at the Vineyard, Wallace admits that some of his clientele overlaps with the real-estate market in Aspen. One client who couldn't find the right home in the Vineyard recently ended up buying in Aspen, he says.

And while the very highest-priced homes may not be finding buyers, Aspen's Gold says he has been an increase in the market overall in the past 6 months, particularly for homes priced between $9 million to $15 million. Several years ago, these buyers would have likely been in the market for $20 million homes.

"I know is sounds odd, but these buyers are trading down to the next tier of million-dollar properties," he says.