Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Worth a million

A box of crayons and colored pencils sits atop a $2,500 table in a formal dining room.

A toy truck is parked in front of a four-car garage.

A worn basketball and football rest in a sunken room attached to the downstairs master bedroom.

For restaurateur Frank Marcello, owning a $1.3 million, 6,300-square-foot, five-bedroom, 4-bath house isn’t about the opulence – it’s about family; it’s about friends.

“We wanted someplace that was comfortable,” says the husband and a father of three. “It’s just home; you don’t really think of it. . . You just have a lot of space for everybody to do their own thing and for us to have guests.”

Houses like Marcello’s – those selling for $1 million or more – are becoming more and more common in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, and they’re getting bigger and more elaborate, too.

Builders and real estate agents say that where three-car garages once sufficed, four-car, five-car and six-car garages or more are becoming the norm.

Professional-grade appliances have invaded the kitchen. Then there’s a room for everything: a room to watch movies, a room to do crafts, a room to do office work. Marcello’s house, built in 2003, even has a panic room – currently the secret hideout of his two sons – accessible via a door that looks like a bookshelf.

“The square footage has gone up and up and up,” says Christie Waszak, owner of Waszak Enterprises Inc., an Albuquerque builder of custom homes in the $700,000 to $3 million price range. “People are putting more money in their homes.”

In 2004, 23 Albuquerque area houses, both older and newly built, sold for $1 million or more, the most sold at that price range in a single year for at least the past 10 years, according to statistics from the Southwest Multiple Listing Service. By comparison, in 2003, nine houses were sold in that range, and in 2002, 10 were sold.

Thirty-three houses are for sale in the $1 million to $1.9 million price range, according to data from the Albuquerque Metropolitan Board of Realtors.

“I think our high-end market is growing faster than ever,” says Susie Fairchild, vice president of the Estates Division of Vaughan Company Realtors. The division handles sales of houses going for more than $400,000.

Fairchild, who has worked in the Albuquerque real estate market for almost 30 years, says it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the first million-dollar houses was sold in Albuquerque.

She partly attributes 2004’s spike in the number of high-end sales to historically low interest rates.

“They’re wanting as much as they can afford, and they’re affording more because of the interest rates,” she says.

In the past, Fairchild has helped secure some loans with interest rates as low as 3 percent, she says. However, rates are creeping back up, and she’s waiting to see how it will affect the high-end market.

Decked out

Houses are growing more expensive, Waszak says, because, in part, of a larger number of buyers with increasingly refined tastes formed from information readily available on the Web and from TV channels such as Home & Garden Television.

“They don’t want ceramic tile,” she says. “They want stone floors. Nobody puts Formica in anymore – it’s granite countertops.”

Floors made of exotic materials more commonly used today can reach $10 to $11 per square foot, while ceramic flooring hovers around $3 per square foot, Waszak says. Granite floors ring up at $100 per unit versus $12 for the same-sized unit of Formica, she says.

Ben Lucero’s $1.9 million house in the High Desert neighborhood of northeast Albuquerque even comes with the sky installed.

At the top of the tower-shaped entryway 24 feet up, fluffy white clouds are painted across a background of New Mexico’s signature blue covering the concave surface of a domed ceiling.

Lucero – who builds high-end houses, including the one he, his wife and two children have lived in since March – flips a switch and a circle of lights ringing the dome’s base casts a pink sunset glow across it.

“A nice big house like that needs an entry statement, a grand statement,” he says. “It just looks like a natural sunset all night long.”

A difference in dirt

High-end houses sit in pockets all over Albuquerque, from sprawling North Valley estates clustered by the Rio Grande to giants overlooking the city atop Sandia Heights and villas tucked away in Corrales.

Of the 23 houses sold in 2004 for more than $1 million, three were in Corrales, where Marcello lives, and four were in Sandia Heights, Lucero’s neighborhood.

Of the remaining 16 houses, five were in North Albuquerque Acres, five were in the Far Northeast Heights and five were in the North Valley. The last one was in Placitas.

Lucero, Waszak and Chris Martinez – owner and president of Picasso Builders, which built Marcello’s house – all say the land those pockets of houses sit upon has been jumping in price.

Waszak says a lot that cost $60,000 two years ago in Corrales is selling for $100,000 today.

“People are having to put so much more money in the land,” she says. “I think there’s really been a change.”

Lucero says he paid about $300,000 more for the land his 6,400 square-foot, four-bedroom, 5-bath behemoth rests upon than he would have five years ago.

“There’s no more land,” he says. “This is the last bastion for the Northeast Heights.”

But another factor driving up the price of expensive houses even further is the rising cost of labor and materials, Lucero says. Add that to the cost of land, and he estimates he could have built his $1.9 million house for about $750,000 five years ago.

“Everything’s just skyrocketed,” he says. “It’s incredible.”

The buyers

Most buyers of high-end houses, Fairchild says, are people who have had ample success in their careers – often CEOs, doctors, lawyers and business owners. On occasion, there is the “mailbox executive,” she says.

“It’s someone who has inherited,” she says. “They go out and get their check out of their mailbox each month.”

Marcello, 44, who came to New Mexico from Louisiana, began his career in his parents’ restaurants when he was 11 years old. He considered medical school after getting a degree in microbiology from Louisiana State University but found he enjoyed and excelled at restaurant work.

Repeated visits to in-laws in New Mexico and trips to the West Side inspired him to open the Copeland’s on Albuquerque’s West Side in November 2001.

After its success, he went on to become the managing partner at one of Albuquerque’s two Owl Cafes and at Zea’s Rotisserie. He plans on opening another restaurant – Gruet Steakhouse – in early February.

“We do pretty well,” he says.

Lucero, a middle-aged New Mexico native, began his home building career in 1990 with houses in the $80,000 price range. Since then, he has built more than 200 houses, six or seven of them in the $1 million or more price range, he said. Houses he works on now generally start at $400,000.

He says he built his $1.9 million home for two reasons. As a builder, it provides him with something to show potential clients what he can create. As a father and husband, it provides a comfortable living space for his family. He says his wife would “kill” him if he tried to sell it.

Buyers, who come from all over the nation and world, differ in their backgrounds, but share a goal of buying a home that goes beyond simply supplying shelter, Fairchild says.

“These buyers can buy anything they want,” she says. “They have to want it; that’s the trick.”

Many people building an expensive house want the extra space and facilities to entertain family and friends, Waszak says.

“They have achieved a lot in their work life, So now they want to spend a little bit more time with themselves and their family doing the things that they love to do in their home,” she says.

Instead of a simple double oven, buyers have a double oven and warming oven, she says, and kitchen appliances are of professional quality. Some stoves can go for $10,000, what an entire kitchen used to cost, she says.

The outdoor spaces are more elaborate as well. Massive patios are enclosed and come with flagstone floors and fireplaces, Waszak says. And many buyers want outdoor kitchens – some with rotisseries – that equal the features of the indoor kitchens.

“These are folks that. . . come to you with expectations, and they’re not low expectations; they’re huge expectations,” she says. “There’s a challenge to meet those expectations.”

The home in the house

But no matter how large a house might be or how loaded it is with amenities – what Lucero calls “gingerbread” – what makes it a home is what happens inside it, he says.

“When I walk into this house at night, it’s just a home to me,” he says. “All the gingerbread just goes away.”

The builder sits comfortably at his kitchen counter, a mottled, earth-tone granite slab that sweeps around the edge of the kitchen like a rampart around a castle.

He’s looking out a window across the living room that abuts the kitchen. Through it he can see his son playing on a swing set in the yard – one of the house’s two – set aside for children.

“To me, when I see that, I’m more excited about that than I am about the Canadian black cherry cabinets,” he says. “There’s no airs. This is where I live.”

SIDEBAR

So what is it that makes a house a million-dollar house?

For one, it’s big. Really big. Susie Fairchild, who handles high-end home sales with Vaughan Company Realtors in Albuquerque, says homes going for millions of dollars are generally from 6,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet in size. Ben Lucero’s $1.9 million High Desert home has 6,400 square feet of living space, 1,500 square feet of balcony, 1,000 square of covered patio and 600 square feet of uncovered patio. That’s 9,500 square feet of space.

It would take about four 2,320- square-foot homes – the average home size in 2003, according to the National Association of Home Builders – to equal the size of Lucero’s home.

Beyond being big, a high-end home typically comes with a slew of amenities and exotic features. Lucero calls them “gingerbread,” and his home is full of it. Here’s a partial list:

• Dial-a-heater: With a quick phone call to his house’s climate control unit, Lucero can switch heaters and air conditioners on and off.

• Home security: Images caught on three surveillance cameras throughout the house are accessible through the home’s TVs or through the Internet.

• In concert: Wall-embedded speakers – controlled by panels next to the light switches – can pump music into most every room.

• Walking on art: Travertine floors, a type of marble, fill the house. Striking circular patterns cut into the stone echo designs in the glass doors.

• Slick suction: With the push of a button, a slim vent slides up, like toast out of a toaster – from the stove’s rear to suck in the steam and smoke that may arise in the course of cooking a meal. Another push of the button, and the vent slides back in.

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