Sunday, September 12, 2004

Would You Pay a Million Dollars for This?

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The million-dollar price tag for this two-bedroom Brookline ranch house says a lot about today's real estate market, but the interior screams of yesterday. Still, the fact that the house is surrounded by more expensive homes suggests that rehabbing the place would prove to be a good investment. (Photos / Sam Gray) Photo Gallery See more houses

With everything from modest homes to million-dollar dumps now commanding princely sums, it's no wonder that Boston's hospitals, colleges, and biotech firms are seeing so many job offers rejected. Who can afford to live here?

SO THIS IS WHAT it has come to: a two-bedroom ranch with a shallow backyard, sitting on a well-traveled road in Brookline not far from the hum of Route 9, with white Formica countertops in the kitchen, powder-blue carpeting in the living room, and pink tiles in the bathroom. The musty basement family room, which abuts a two-car garage, has walls decorated with narrow mirrors set alongside some kind of bulletin- board material, and the sunroom has a sliding glass door. That sticks.

It just sold for a million bucks.

Walking around this solid but defiantly outdated house in a nice section of town is like stepping back into your grandmother's house after a long absence. The lemon-yellow draperies in the living room, the wooden TV console in the den, the cafeteria-style linoleum squares in the family room. All that's missing is the clear plastic covering on the sofa.

So, sit up straight, be careful not to spill, and lower your expectations. Dramatically.

This 2,000-square-foot house may evoke warm memories from childhood, but it also reveals the cold realities of the current metro-Boston housing market. At some point when we were all too busy marveling at the rapid appreciation of our own modest homes, we missed the complete erosion of one of the most enduring symbols of real estate: the million-dollar mansion. Forget stately Georgians, forget sweeping staircases, forget rolling grounds. Over the last year, some communities have seen everything from ordinary postwar ranches and Capes to shag-carpet split-levels sneak into the $1 million price range -- and in surprising number. The overheated Boston market is blurring two time-honored iconic images: your grandmother's house -- sturdy, simple, inviting -- and the million-dollar home -- august, luxurious, exclusive. Who knew Grandma could be comfortable in this crowd?

Houses here cost so much because there are too few of them for all the people who have been drawn to Boston because it's such a great place for great minds to do great things. But that reputation, which has kept Boston competitive all these years, is beginning to buckle under the weight of absurd home prices. Even in a recession, Boston's world-renowned hospitals, higher-education institutions, and biotech firms admit they are seeing their job offers turned down like never before, largely because of housing costs. If prices get so high that it becomes less desirable to move here, how long before it becomes less competitive as well?

Home prices in Massachusetts are six times what they were in 1980 -- by far the largest spike in the country. But salaries here are only about three times what they were in 1980, creating an enormous imbalance between what we're earning and what we're paying for our houses. There's no way this can continue. Except if it does.

In the most select ZIP codes, places like Brookline and Weston, real estate agents can talk of million-dollar "starter homes" without needing to stifle a giggle. They don't have to. Although the houses themselves are alarmingly ordinary, they have proven in recent years to be very sound investments -- better than just about any of those symbols gliding across the CNBC ticker every business day. Grandma's two-bedroom ranch sits in Brookline 02445, which has seen a 142 percent jump in home-sale prices over the last five years, according to the MLS Property Information Network. But this is an equal-opportunity boom: The Massachusetts ZIP code that has seen the biggest jump -- 218 percent -- is in Lawrence, a city that hasn't seen this much action since it was relying on child labor to spin out cotton cloth for the country.

Proximity to Boston, lot sizes, and well-regarded school systems are the primary admission requirements for the million-dollar club, which explains why a nondescript, three-bedroom split-level in Newton sold for $950,000. Or why a shopworn contemporary in Lexington featuring a small 1950s kitchen sold for nearly $1.2 million. Or why a snug 1,700-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch in Belmont clocked in near the million mark.

You want a grand, rambling Victorian in a top town for around $1 million? That can be arranged, but be warned it may turn out to be a million-dollar dump. One Brookline Victorian that sold recently had collapsing floorboards, asbestos pipe covering, and a tiny galley kitchen with a bizarre Astro Turf-like material on the floors. It gets better: "One had to go through the bathroom to get into the dining area, and that's not the way to design a house," says Harout Kelian, the architect who mapped out the complete rehab of the house, which is now underway. Kelian counts himself among the many whose initial reaction to the Victorian was shock at just how far from "move-in condition" a million- dollar pad could be. But the house will emerge, after lots of cash, as a great place -- and no doubt a very good investment.

There are plenty of properties on the market like it. After a few heart-sinking open houses, you'll learn how to decode the broker-speak that fills real estate listings, how "period details" usually means "needs serious renovation" or how "Bring your TLC" means "Bring your checkbook and tell your contractor to bring his porta-potty; he's going to be around awhile."

Because no community in Eastern Massachusetts has been immune from the geyser of home-price inflation, we have seen the outright end of humility in the setting of asking prices. Witness the three-bedroom Cape that backs up to the White Hen Pantry parking lot in a scruffy part of Natick on the market for $875,000 or the four-bedroom ranch in Quincy -- whose own real estate listing concedes that the "property is tired" -- sporting a price tag of $899,000.

Nationally, homes worth $1 million or more now make up the fastest-growing segment of the housing market, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. This phenomenon is so new that it wasn't until 2000 that the US Census Bureau began tracking the million-dollar category; before that, those properties were tossed into the top bracket of "$500,000 or more."

But in much of the country, a million bucks still gets you a house that looks like something close to a million bucks. Think new construction, with maybe 6,000 square feet of living space, a media room, a pool, and a three-car garage. If you have a cousin in Texas or Oklahoma or Kansas, you've no doubt had the what-planet-are-you-on debate. She's convinced that you must be insane to pony up a lottery-sized payout for a split-level that needs a new kitchen and baths. You're convinced that, in terms of real estate, she has more in common with a homeowner in Kazakhstan.

You're both right.

The most insidious effect of the market is its ability to make us numb to the absurdity. Spend some time poring over real estate listings and hanging out at open houses, and you'll overhear observations like "For $925,000, it's not hideous." Spend enough time doing this, as I have in recent months, and these comments actually stop sounding completely warped. The market is changing our conception of what a million dollars means, and, along the way, it might just be changing us as well.

AFTER HE GRADUATED from Harvard's School of Education in 1980, Tod Beaty began dabbling in real estate to make a little cash. With some tutoring from his ninth-grade math students, he created a database on his Apple II that allowed him to keep track of Cambridge home sales.

Today, Beaty is president of the Cambridge office of Hammond Real Estate. He makes a lot more than the $8,000 he took in as a broker in 1981. A trim 51-year-old with a gray mustache, strong chin, and soft voice, he sits in front of his Apple PowerBook G4 and calls up a descendant to that Apple II program, a detailed database of million-dollar home sales in Cambridge.

The Census Bureau says Cambridge is the city with the highest percentage of $1-million- plus single-family homes in the country. But this is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Beaty has to go back only as far as 1986 to find Cambridge's first million-dollar sale. One of the two properties that broke the barrier was a gorgeous nine-bedroom Colonial Revival on Channing Place that sold for $1.2 million. In some ways, this regal house (with attached town house) tells the story of Cambridge real estate. In 1989, three years after its historic sale, it sold again, for $2 million, and five years after that, it sold for $3.2 million. Once again, it's back on the market, this time for $7.9 million.

This, in the words of Lindsay Allison, one of Beaty's veteran brokers, is what $1 million gets you in "desirable" West Cambridge these days: "A house in a nice neighborhood that needs absolutely everything done to it." Or you can get a peach four-bedroom Cape squeezed into an alley, with two houses in front of it and one behind it. Its most visible feature is a protruding garage.

It's true that $1 million is just a number, and it's foolish to expect it to remain impervious to inflation. Think of Mike Myers's Dr. Evil character from Austin Powers, who, thawed after 30 years, threatens to use a warhead to "hold the world ransomed for" -- dramatic, pinky-nibbling pause -- "one million dollars!" Still, in both psychological and economic terms, it's stunning to see how far such a mighty price point has fallen.

Consider that in 1972, the Vanderbilt family sold the Breakers, its Newport, Rhode Island, mansion that evokes all the opulence of the Gilded Age, to a historic trust for its appraised value of around $300,000. In today's dollars, that would be about $1.3 million. Hmm, let's see: Cape cramped into an alley or 70-room waterfront palazzo?

How did we get here?

Remember that in the 1970s, much of Massachusetts was a deteriorated industrial area of empty mills and depressed old housing stock, says Patrick Lawler, the chief economist with the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. (Housing prices were about the same in Boston as in Hartford.) But that all changed with the huge buildup of human capital in the 1980s, thanks in part to the heavy defense spending that benefitted MIT, Draper Laboratory, and all the companies that sprang up around them. Greater Boston became a hot place to live and to locate a business, and all those tired three-bedroom Colonials didn't look so tired anymore.

ASIDE FROM A DROP in the late 1980s and early 1990s, real estate values have been surging here ever since. That's because while demand has been in overdrive, supply here is far more limited than in most of the country. There's not much land left, and much of what is left is off-limits to builders because of conservation and zoning restrictions.

Look at the charts Lawler keeps to track the growth in housing prices, state by state, and you see those "two Americas" the Democrats have been talking about so much these days, although it's sometimes hard to tell whose America you'd rather be in. The housing price boom has really hit only about a dozen states. The data explain why you and your cousin in Oklahoma aren't speaking the same language. Since 1980, housing prices in Massachusetts are up 516 percent the next biggest spike was the 399 percent New York saw). Over the same period, home prices in Oklahoma have risen 74 percent.

Drill down even deeper, and you see that this is essentially a Northeast/West Coast -- or "blue state" -- phenomenon. Of the 14 states that have seen the biggest jumps in home prices since 1975, all but one of them (borderline-blue New Hampshire) voted for Al Gore in 2000. Meanwhile, 24 of the bottom 26 states are solidly in the red. People can debate how much the blue and red states diverge in terms of values, but when it comes to housing, there's no question that we live in two profoundly different worlds.

The endless supply of land, and new subdivisions, in places like Texas keeps the lid on housing costs. But Boston and Manhattan (where the average price of an apartment hit $1 million for the first time a few months ago) and San Francisco are landlocked places that long ago blew the lid off.

Costs here have soared especially high over the last five years, as the housing supply has become even tighter, record-low interest rates have expanded buying power, and the stock market tumble persuaded many people to move more of their assets into real estate. Meanwhile, new parents determined to go top-shelf for their kids in everything from Maclaren baby strollers to Britax car seats aren't about to settle for schools with average MCAS scores, so they end up sparking bidding wars for homes in the top districts. That has driven up housing costs in those communities at rates far above the already inflated state average, which in turn has allowed the property there to appreciate almost as fast as Intel stock did during the tech boom.

"If you bought a home five years ago," says Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, "it was as if you had a second job without working. The appreciation just kept building."

Add to the mix the factors of trade-ups, teardowns, and downsizing, and you get our current million-dollar kind of ordinary.

Trade-ups occur when those people lucky enough to have bought their three-bedroom Colonial in a desirable area five years ago decide they want to move to a bigger house on a quieter street. Their broker tells them what their house is worth, and they are stunned to hear it has doubled in value. But their vision of the fat-cat life ends the moment they venture into the market and realize that just about everything else has also doubled in cost. Still, the hundreds of thousands in profit they make on their first house becomes a hefty down payment for their new house. That, combined with lower interest rates, pushes them into a million-dollar price range that their salaries alone would have never justified. All this demand, fueled by all this profit, changes the landscape.

"It upsets the natural order of things," says Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Home: A Short History of an Idea. "It coarsens people. You can't afford to worry about the building. All your money's in the land."

With an insufficient supply of trade-up homes in these top districts, developers enter the picture. They won't blink at plunking down three-quarters of a million or more for a ratty old ranch in a nice neighborhood, tearing it down, and replacing it with one of those oversized Colonials -- as long as they're reasonably confident they can make at least a 20 percent profit in the end. In recent years, such confidence has seldom been misplaced, particularly in places like Lexington and Newton. Veteran builder Cindy Stumpo just bought a contemporary ranch in Brookline for $1.45 million and plans to tear it down and replace it with a 5,500-square-foot house that she hopes to sell for $3.9 million. When I asked her how many bedrooms the ranch had, she said, "I have no idea. I never even walked inside it."

And then there's downsizing. If you think the family that bought five years ago saw appreciation, consider the older couple who set up camp 40 years ago. In exchange for shouldering ever-escalating property taxes over the years, they can now sell their gracious home in a nice neighborhood for upward of $2 million, and buy a high-end condo or new town house with all the trappings in a development geared toward older affluent people, and still have plenty left over. This, in turn, has dramatically driven up the cost of town houses and condos.

Miceal Chamberlain owns Historic Homes, a Newton brokerage firm specializing in the sale of the finer homes in Brookline and Newton. He says that when he entered the business in 1990, "a million and a half could get you an estate -- a big house on a big lot in the nicest areas of Brookline and Newton." These days? "A two-bedroom condo on Beacon Street goes for $1.5 million. It's astounding."

"I AM OPPOSED TO millionaires," Mark Twain once wrote, "but it would be dangerous to offer me the position." When 401(k)s grew in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, middle-class workers began following the Dow with the discipline of stockbrokers, turning to the stock tables every morning even before the sports pages.

Today, the housing boom is turning passive homeowners into real estate players. This includes plenty of people whose property has a long way to go before it hits the million mark. In addition to Lawrence, blue-collar cities like Chelsea and Brockton have seen home prices take flight, as low interest rates have driven up demand by flooding the market with buyers determined to leave the renting life.

With 401(k) portfolios losing serious value in recent years, more of us now see our home as the primary insurance policy against having to spend our "retirement" years working harder than ever. Walk into any open house these days, and you may find as many neighbors as prospective buyers. We've become a region of real estate tire-kickers, checking out the neighboring homes to see what it might mean for the value of our own.

Yet many owners of million-dollar homes remain ambivalent about their ascent. One woman, who recently sold her small Cape in Needham for more than double what she paid for it six years ago, was happy to provide me with every detail of her new $1 million home in Newton as long as I didn't divulge one about her: her name.

"I don't think of myself as owning a million-dollar house," she says. "And I guess I don't want others to think of me that way, either."

This distorted market has created plenty of people like her.

They are the antithesis of the nouveau riche of the last generation, those who bought big, fl ashy homes so no one would miss the news that they had arrived. Today, people are more circumspect, partly because they are uncomfortable with the symbolic value of wealth and partly because wealth is different if it is essentially tied up in a house. There are about 2 million Americans with assets of $1 million or more, when the value of a primary residence is not counted. Throw in home wealth, and the number of millionaire households swells to about 8 million, according to Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy. For many Massachusetts "millionaires," the dough is essentially unreal, since not many of them plan to cash in and move to Oklahoma.

But that doesn't mean they haven't become actively engaged in trying to maximize their investment, as a stroll through the Expo Design Center in Braintree, one of two high-end Home Depots in the Boston area, shows. Instead of the bright-orange aprons and warehouse-high shelving at its sister operations, the Expo Center artfully displays dream kitchens and baths, with custom cabinetry and fixtures available in every flavor. The price tags -- $13,575 for a British stove, $8,439 for a stainless-steel range hood, $4,181 for a crystal chandelier -- scream well-to-do, but the customers are me and you. Even the parking lot tells the story, with a Mercedes E430 flanked by a Chevy Cavalier and a Kia Sephia.

"I used to go to Home Depot to see what I needed," says Paul Schervish, director of BC's Center on Wealth. "Now I go to Expo Design to see what I desire." We now see our homes -- whatever their assessed value -- as active assets that have careers of their own. With home-equity loans more plentiful, there is an almost speculative nature to the whole process. Rather than using the loans for pressing needs, we're investing in designer kitchens with granite countertops, which, in turn, are expected to ratchet up the value of our homes when we finally decide to stick the sign on the front lawn.

BE THANKFUL you're not in Sarah Winig's shoes. She and her husband had been living with their 2-year-old daughter in Plano, Texas, a nice suburb of Dallas with a top-rated school system. But they wanted to move to Boston to be closer to family. Just before her husband got a job at MIT in April, they put their 3,300-square-foot, four-bedroom, 3 1/2-bathroom Texas house on the market for $259,000. It's not selling.

They began looking in Brookline and Newton but quickly learned from their broker, Susan Liberman, that replicating their Texas house here would run them about a million and a half. Determined to stay close to Boston, they lowered their expectations: a smaller house for less than $800,000. They recently found it in Needham and will be able to swing it only by taking out a hefty mortgage. "We've questioned whether we're insane to be doing this," she says. "Had my husband's family not lived here, my guess is we would not have made the plunge."

Now contrast that with the experience of Stephen Bruce. Last fall, the software company manager and his wife sold their four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot reproduction Colonial in Westborough for about $600,000 and moved to an upscale suburb of Atlanta, where they paid about $400,000 for a five-bedroom, 4,400-square-foot house with 9-foot ceilings in a subdivision that is equipped with tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a water slide, which provide endless fun for their two daughters. Spend $1 million on a house down there, and you can get into the exclusive neighborhood where Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown live.

Well, maybe that's not the best selling point, but you get the idea.

Bruce says his family's quality of life has improved dramatically. No offense to the Bruces, but this is bad news for Massachusetts.

Ever since Massachusetts reinvented itself a quarter-century ago, converting all those empty mills into incubator space for high-tech businesses and lofts for their workers, the state has enjoyed a revived reputation for being an extremely desirable place to live. That, in turn, has helped attract a steady supply of ambitious newcomers and retain so many of those bright college kids who clog Kenmore and Harvard squares every Friday night. All this new blood has replenished local institutions and made the region more competitive, more desirable -- and more expensive.

But the gains are being eroded by the region's runaway real estate costs. "Our housing problem is really an economic development problem now," says Barry Bluestone, director of Northeastern's Center for Urban and Regional Policy. He says that housing costs have become such a drag on faculty recruiting at Northeastern that the campus joke is: "Anyone who recommends a real estate agent to someone we're trying to recruit will immediately be fired by the president."

For years, Boston's top hospitals took it for granted that their world-class reputation and Harvard affiliation made the hiring process no more involved than mailing out offer letters. Who was going to refuse? Those days are gone.

"The real estate crunch is playing a very significant role in recruiting," says Dr. Troyen Brennan, president of the Brigham and Women's Physicians Organization, which oversees recruiting and hiring at the hospital. While there has always been a tradition of academic medical centers elsewhere turning to Boston to fill their most prominent positions, the outflow is much more severe and widespread now. "What we're seeing is a lot more mid-level doctors -- assistant and associate professors -- leaving to go to other parts of the country where housing costs are much less," says Brennan. It's not hard to understand why. "Here, you're living in a small condo or commuting 30 miles to get to a Boston hospital versus elsewhere in the country, where you can afford a nice house right near the hospital."

Brennan, who bought his Brookline home in 1991, says the cachet of Boston's institutions is still strong, "but that can't hold up long term."

Obstetrician Robert Blatman says his seven-doctor group at Massachusetts General Hospital has been down to four doctors for more than a year. "We've had a really hard time recruiting," he says. Asked to describe the impact of home prices on the Boston medical field, he doesn't hold back: "A total disaster."

Blatman and his wife are expecting their first child. He began looking for a house in Brookline in the spring and quickly found himself in the million-dollar price bracket. "A million-dollar house would be a huge stretch for me," says the 44-year-old doctor. "I was hoping to see something that was wonderful. Instead, the best I found was a couple of places that were OK." It was enough to keep him on the sidelines, at least for now. "The crazy thing is, if I can't afford to live in these areas, what about the teachers and the firemen? It really worries me that, at some point, this has to erode the quality of life that made the real estate around here so desirable in the first place."

EVERY SATURDAY MORNING on UPN 38, the TV show gives an up-close-and-personal tour of a distinctive home on the market, bracketed by short ads for more average homes. "We go for the Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous format," says Ed Williams, CEO and cofounder of the company. When the Danvers-based company debuted its TV show in June 2003, he decided that only houses valued at $1 million or more would be considered for the featured slot. The threshold made sense at the time. But lately, Williams says, he's gotten worn out from having to turn down sellers wanting to showcase their middling million-dollar homes. "These days, $1 million can be a shack. It's out of control," he says. "Modest ranches don't have entertainment value."

It would have been hard to sustain a half-hour show on a boxy three-bedroom contemporary recently on the market in South Brookline. No matter. The house with the nice interior balcony but drab, flat-front exterior sold for $1.1 million one day after Philip Movshovich advertised it on "When you hear million-dollar home, you think of some mansion owned by a celebrity," says Movshovich. "But times change, and we happen to be on the positive side of this boom. We're just riding it out."

Still, if the million-dollar mansion is a thing of the past around here, most of us missed the memo. Ask anyone who is not actively shopping for or selling a house to describe a million-dollar home, and you're likely to hear about sweeping staircases and circular drives.

"We had to try to service that image," says Bryan Hale, one of the people behind a new reality show called The Mansion that will debut on the TBS cable network next month. The show, whose working title was The Million Dollar Mansion, will toss eight contestants into an impressive old estate. Along with the requisite reality doses of back-stabbing, scheming, and smooching, the contestants will renovate the house, and then viewers will decide which of the eight gets to keep it.

Hale, the director of development for the company producing the show, says the budget for purchasing a property was $700,000. "That led us off both coasts and into the middle of the country," he says. They ended up in Cincinnati, landing a stately 7,000-square-foot Tudor sitting on 4 acres, with a lengthy, tree-lined driveway, a carriage house, and a private pond.

The most expensive single-family home currently on the market in the Boston area also sits on about 4 acres. The Brookline estate doesn't have its own pond, but it boasts an indoor swimming pool, seven bedrooms, and 18,000 square feet of living space. To hand over his keys to this exquisite Georgian Revival, Frank McCourt, the Boston bigwig and new owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is asking $22 million.

As much as the market has upended the natural order and relaxed lending rules have allowed average joes to take on jumbo mortgages for anything-but-average sums, McCourt's house shows how the rich manage to keep to themselves. Some high-end financial planners now eschew garden-variety millionaires, restricting their services to the Edens of decimillionaires and centimillionaires. And to help navigate this new Lake Wobegon world where every home price is above average, real estate brokers have created new categories. The numbers get more exclusive as you climb upward. For the first half of this year, the MLS Property Information Network, which tracks real estate listings in Massachusetts, reports about 450 sales between $1 million and $1.5 million but only 20 between $3 million and $4 million. (The figures do not include most sales in Cape Cod and Western Massachusetts, which MLS-PIN does not cover, and many of the highest-end properties, like the McCourt estate, which are handled privately.)

Although most shoppers are initially shocked at how little they can get for $1 million, they get acclimated pretty quickly, says Phyllis Aaronson, an agent with W. H. Lyon Real Estate who brokered the nearly $1.2 million sale of that shopworn contemporary in Lexington. She admits the house doesn't look like a million bucks but says the location is "priceless" -- eight-10ths of an acre abutting more than 5 acres of preserved open space. The buyer, a respected economics professor, knows a good deal when he sees it.

There's a new price point where people expect more, Aaronson says. "A million and a half is the figure at which people say, 'Where's the beef?'"

Despite all the talk that the real estate bubble is about to burst, home sales continued to be brisk this summer. A big reason for that was interest rates, as buyers raced to close deals before further hikes kick in.

Brokers do admit seeing signs the market is beginning to slow. The crazy bidding wars that erupted at open houses as recently as the spring have largely disappeared. And more million-plus properties saw price reductions as the summer wore on.

But before taking this as proof of the wisdom in staying on the sidelines, remember this: People were talking about similar signs of softening four years ago. That was before the housing market here plowed right through a recession. Before all those prospective buyers, who had folded rather than ante up $300,000 for a three-bedroom Cape, realized the market correction wasn't coming. Before they ended up paying double to land their Cape and finally get into the game.

Harvard's Nick Retsinas and Northeastern's Barry Bluestone say that even if the economy worsens and the bubble bursts in other parts of the country, Boston's unusually tight supply suggests that single-family home prices will probably continue to appreciate but at a much slower pace. Bottom line: The sidelines are not necessarily the smartest place to be.

If you can afford the $1 million high stakes but insist on getting a place that looks like a million bucks, take heart. There are still a few out there.

For $950,000, you can score a 25-room mansion in Franklin, featuring hand-painted Delft tiles from Holland and eight fireplaces of Italian marble. Just off the front hall, with its sweeping staircase, there is a lovely "flower room," where freshly cut blossoms would be delivered, washed, and arranged daily in the 1920s, when the mansion was home to a larger-than-life industrialist.

But to get this much house for this kind of money, you'll need to make a few compromises. The rolling acres that once insulated the sprawling Georgian were sold off long ago, so now the view is obstructed by a charter school with attached modular classrooms. With no central air conditioning, the third-floor ballroom gets pretty hot in the summer. And, oh, yes, if you buy the house, there are nine days every August when you're legally required to turn your backyard over to the St. Rocco's Festival, whose Ferris wheel, live bands, and endless supply of cannoli attract a crowd of 30,000.

A hassle? You bet. But at least nobody will ever confuse it with a two-bedroom ranch.