The Real Cost of a Discounted Frank Lloyd Wright

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Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle’s On the Block blog pointed to two Bay Area Frank Lloyd Wright homes, one in Orinda and one in San Anselmo, that have languished on the market for ages. They’re classic dwellings from one of the world’s most famous architects, but even in this hot real estate market nobody’s biting. The Chron’s Jenny Pisillo suggested that was “perhaps [because] of the high price tags.”

But it’s more than pure cost: These homes don’t come with the same amenities as others in their price range, and as amazing as they look, buying one means buying into an unending project.

The San Anselmo home, known as the Robert Berger House for the teacher who built it from Wright’s design, has sat on the market for 236 days, and had its price reduced to $1.99 million from $2 million. The Orinda one, known as the Maynard Buehler House, has been for sale for a whopping 555 days, and seen its price fall to $3.35 million from an original ask of $4.495 million – more than a 30 percent drop.

That’s not a particularly rare price point: There are six homes on the market in Orinda asking more than $3 million, and none have spent even half as much time on the market as the Buehler property. But as Thomas Westfall, of Alain Pinel Realtors, explains, you don’t get as much house for your money with the three-bedroom Buehler home. At $770 per square foot, it sits well outside the average of $559.86 per square foot for other Orinda homes listed at $1 million or more.

“It’s always great to be nostalgic, but there’s functionality too. And the Frank Lloyd Wright houses are like museums, so it takes a special kind of buyer,” Westfall said. “Maintenance will come into play, especially with the gardens. It’s going to take somebody like a Larry Ellison type.”

The Buehler property includes not just the home but the 2.3-acre grounds, complete with waterfalls, rolling hills, and a guest house, landscaped by Henry Matsutani, the chief designer of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The property is listed on the National Registry of Historic places, and whoever buys it must enter into a deal with the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation to preserve its appearance and show it publicly several days a year.

One potential buyer, a Castro Valley Eichler owner named Scott San Filippo, said he decided against making an offer in part because the maintenance and landscaping costs were just too daunting.

“I can’t remember the exact amount but there’s a big koi pond there so that costs eight or nine hundred a month just for the PG&E bill. And the grounds are amazing but that costs, I think, $1,200 for the groundskeeping. So that added up in addition to the mortgage.”

On the plus side, the high price and built-in protections mean there’s almost zero risk that someone would buy the home and remodel it. “There are enough hurdles to owning the place that I think you would definitely have to embrace it and love what you were moving into,” San Filippo said.

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