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Household Names Feed Niche for Home Brokers

Not all wealthy buyers looking for homes in Los Angeles simply want high-end estates. They also want high-end names: Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and John Lautner.

Homes designed by those and other notable Southern California architects are hot commodities now, especially among foreign buyers, said Aaron Kirman, president of the estates division at Beverly Hills real estate firm John Aaroe Group, which has sold historic properties for years.

“A lot of the bigger (buyers) right now seem to be foreign,” said Kirman, who has worked with house seekers from places such as Shanghai and Dubai, and who estimates 40 percent to 45 percent of his clients are from overseas.

That influx of foreign money also comes as more buyers in general become interested in architecturally significant homes.

“What’s really great about that is, at one time architectural integrity and cache wasn’t so relevant,” Kirman said. “Today, it’s very relevant for them. So it’s all kind of coming together.”

The growing interest in architecturally significant homes has meant good business for Kirman and a handful of other real estate agents who specialize in selling them.

Crosby Doe of Crosby Doe Associates in Beverly Hills agrees that the market is thriving.

“Today I think it is stronger than ever,” Doe said. “The pool of people looking for this type of property is expanding.”

But it’s still a niche market, with specialized agents and different types of buyers. Those interested in such homes generally aren’t looking for just a trophy property – they also have a desire to preserve a house’s historical qualities.

“I noticed that people who like architecture are people who love art and fashion and design,” Kirman said. “It’s people who really understand the intrinsic value of architecture. It’s a different game, a different database.”

It’s so different, in part, because it’s expensive to renovate and maintain architecturally important homes while keeping their significance intact.

David Ross, an architect who has worked on historic home preservation projects for West L.A.’s Frederick Fisher and Partners, said he’s noticed the recent increase in interest in architecturally significant homes, but he’s also seen less interest in the preservation of those homes.

“Restoration can be costly,” said Ross. “If you’re going to try to bring them back to what they were, it’s a very time-consuming process.”

For many buyers, he said, it’s cheaper just to build a new house.

Client contacts

Because of the relatively few buyers able and interested in taking on that kind of project, many of the homes Doe and Kirman sell are never publicly listed. Rather, agents rely on their networks to match up properties that might be for sale with potential buyers.

“A lot of these homes we trade are not even on the market because they know we already have our database of buyers that are always looking for these properties,” Kirman said.

He said John Aaroe maintains relationships with international buyers and his firm reaches out to those connections when a house comes on the market to see who might be interested.

If a buyer returns Kirman’s call, he sends photos and sketches of the home and sets up a meeting to work with the potential buyer one on one.

“I just spent last week in New York and I spent time with people from the Middle East and Europe,” he said, adding that those clients are looking to buy estate homes or architecturally significant properties worth between $30 million and $90 million.

Kirman started building his network of contacts early in his career, when a single phone call pushed him into the architectural homes niche.

“A guy called me and said, ‘I want a Richard Neutra house,’” Kirman said. “And I said, you know, ‘What’s a Richard Neutra house?’”

Kirman researched notable L.A. architects, from Neutra to Lautner to Schindler and Oscar Niemeyer, and ultimately found the buyer a home.

“He was a great client and just kept referring me to people that wanted Schindler, Lautner, Neutra, and that just became my niche,” he said.

Though he didn’t know anything about those architects at first, he’s grown to appreciate their work. He recently sold the Harpel house, a Lautner-designed property in the Hollywood Hills. After weaving down narrow side streets to get to the house then up a steep driveway, visitors are greeted with a view – from inside and outside of the house – of most of the L.A. basin.

“These architects were masters of sight,” Kirman said. “It really is the best of what Southern California has to offer.”

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