Why Buy In Montecito?

Perhaps you’ve read that some 12 billionaires (and counting) own part-time or full-time homes here and assume they know something you don’t (they do). Maybe you simply want to live in a place where 4,000-foot mountains tumble gently towards the sea in a Mediterranean year-round climate with an abundance of arts and entertainment options (and restaurants) nearby and a choice of elegant living quarters to choose from. Or, you are just searching for a quiet community in which it’s possible to walk to the market or the hardware store, book store, church and/or school, and, oh yes, where those small well-run public schools excel academically and feature intense parental involvement.

In which case, welcome to Montecito.

We’ve been lucky; in 1969, plans were afoot to build three 8-story “luxury” apartment buildings on Hill Road behind the Biltmore. Developers were eyeing Channel Drive, where more high-rises, a la Santa Monica or La Jolla, were on the drawing boards. In 1957, Montecito Gazette reported that county planners had estimated Montecito’s population (which at the time was a little over 7,000) was likely to nearly triple to 20,000 in the next 13 years, by 1970. Before any of those extravagant proposals made it to a groundbreaking ceremony – the apartment buildings were approved for construction by the Board of Supervisors, but challenged by the Montecito Association – the Santa Barbara oil spill occurred in January 1969, and an awareness grew that there was something unique here that deserved more protection than it had.

The courts upheld the challenge against the apartment buildings and because of recurring droughts, a limited moratorium on new water meters was enacted in 1973 that stayed in place until 1997; it was lifted when this area connected to the state water system after an extended drought that lasted from the mid ‘80s to the early ‘90s caused voters to elect to hook up to the state system. Because of that drought and subsequent water moratorium, most of coastal Santa Barbara County from Carpinteria to Gaviota was spared the massive development that overwhelmed many other areas of the California coastline. Montecito stayed small, manageable, human.

And, of course, that smallness, that manageability, that human scale, has extended Montecito’s charm. With the birth and growth of the Internet, that appeal has become worldwide; hence the price pressure you feel as a first-time buyer.

If you do decide that a home in Montecito is what you want and deserve, there are two things you should do upon your purchase: buy, steal, grub, or somehow get your hands on David Myrick’s “Montecito And Santa Barbara, From Farms to Estates” (Volume I), and “The Days of the Great Estates” (Volume II). You’ll find yourself thumbing through it weekly for the next, oh, three decades; get a copy of Erin Graffy de Garcia’s “Society Lady’s Guide to How To Santa Barbara,” or “How To Santa Barbara: The Advanced Course.” There are other books about Santa Barbara and Montecito that you should have, but these will get you started.

I’m not in the real estate business, so in order to verify current trends in the Montecito market, I spoke with many of Montecito’s top sales agents (most of whom advertise in the Journal!), and asked Prudential California Realty partners Wes St. Clair and Jo Ann Mermis to discuss the issue further.

A View From Above

Jo Ann and Wes have been partners in real estate for more than three years. Although Wes has only lived in Montecito since 1993, he began visiting the Santa Barbara area in 1980 for vacations, and has been a member at Birnam Wood since 1981. He was CEO/President of Southgate Bank, a community bank founded by his father, John St. Clair. Wes (whose wife is Marsha St. Clair) has two sons, John and Ken.

Jo Ann has two daughters, Natalie and Melia, and is a former president of Montecito Union School PTA. She grew up in Kansas and moved here from Texas in 1977. “I came for the sand and sun,” she says, and reveals it was Mike Love of the Beach Boys – a friend of her then-husband – who enticed her to move. Jo Ann began selling real estate in 1985. Both Jo Ann and Wes attended the University of Kansas.

Wes has a pilot’s license that includes helicopter, and over the years has taken aerial photographs of much of Montecito and many of its homes and properties.

Q. How would you characterize the state of Montecito real estate?

A. (Wes’s and Jo Ann’s answers and opinions have been melded together for the purposes of this interview.) We don’t see much change at all in Montecito, other than a [continuing] lack of inventory to show. A lot of people think there is an over-supply, but that just isn’t true. The condo market suddenly dried up in other areas, but not in Montecito, which has been good. Last year, for example, we had a good sale at Bonnymede with five offers and the apartment went for $250,000 over the asking.

Would you care to guess what the spring market portends?

We don’t think interest rates are going to change much. And, right now [late January], we’re seeing a lot of activity. In any case, the Montecito market is unique in that interest rates really don’t affect that market as heavily as other markets because it is upper, upper, end and many of the buyers just pay cash anyway.

So, it’s a good time to buy?

Looking at the last hundred years’ statistics, you can’t go wrong with Santa Barbara dirt. I tell people “buy the best dirt you can afford; it always appreciates in the Santa Barbara area,” and statistics bear me out. If you hold for at least three to five years, you can’t go wrong.

Pretend I’ve just retired and managed to scrape together twelve million bucks; that’s all I’ve got and must live on it, so I’ve come to you and my house price range is three to five million dollars. What can I get for that in Montecito? I don’t need the school districts.

Well, you’re going to get a fairly modest house for $3 million. And maybe a little better house for 4 million. Actually, $4 million is kind of entry level, if you want an acre and any kind of a house in Montecito. You can find less expensive properties, but you’re going to have to put more money into them to bring them up to speed. A house that’s really ‘bring your toothbrush ready to move in’ is going to be around $4 million. For that, you’ll probably get four bedrooms, five baths, maybe even a guesthouse. Probably no ocean view. Could be a pool; could be a tennis court, probably an acre.

In what part of town will I find that house?

For four million, you’re probably going to be in the hedgerow, down in the lower part of Montecito with no ocean view, or on the outskirts of Montecito, like Toro Canyon, far out on the east side of East Valley Road, or perhaps the far west side of Montecito.

Does it still make sense to buy raw land and build?

Well, you’re looking at about two years from start to finish, because the permit process is not easy here, and it’s a double-edged sword: we all want to be here and we don’t want it to change. It also depends on the lot. In Ennisbrook, for example, there are two lots available and building has already been approved by the homeowner’s association, so you could be in a house in about a year on one of those. The lots are $1.8 million and building costs are about $500 a square foot if you’re not too extravagant. A 5,000-square-foot house would cost $2.5 million, so you’d be in for $4.3 million or so, with mountain views in a brand-new house.

So, my retirees looking for a $3-million to $5-million home would be better off buying an existing house?

That all depends upon their lifestyle and what they’re willing to do. People forget to pay themselves for the time they’re spending. Many of these folks with $12 million earn $1,000 an hour or something; they forget to pay themselves that and build that into the cost of the house.

How about if I’ve got $12 million to spend on a house?

Well, that’s a tough price range in a way. You’d think you could get just about everything, but you’ve really got to get up in the $15 to $20 million range if you want the mansion, but you can get ocean views for $12 million.

Have real estate taxes put a dent in the market? If you have a $4-million house, you’re looking at $40,000-plus in property taxes. Has Prop 13 begun to bite into real estate sales?

We really never get that question. I mean, people ask, but it doesn’t affect the sale. If they’re coming from Connecticut, New Jersey, they’re probably paying more in property taxes. Some people are consolidating, selling two or three homes, and making this their only home because they realize that with the climate here they don’t need to go somewhere else. They can spend money on travel; a lot of them are joining vacation clubs instead.

OK, I only have $2.5 million to spend. Can I still be in Montecito?

You can get into a condominium. Otherwise, maybe they wouldn’t be teardowns, but they would require a lot of work. Maybe a little cottage on half an acre.

Would I be wiser, then, to look elsewhere?

You would get a bigger and better house somewhere else.

How about Carpinteria?

I think anything above Foothill is a good investment anywhere, from Carpinteria to Goleta, but I think below it is iffy. Carpinteria has a great beach, but it also has all the Ventura traffic to deal with getting into Santa Barbara. I think a better buy for $2.5 million would be the Mesa, because you have the beach there and you are in Santa Barbara. You’re close to State Street; you have the theater, the symphony, the ballet… Or, the Riviera, where you can get an ocean view for $2.5 million. That’s what I would do with $2.5 million, unless you go above Foothill, and that’s a whole other animal. That’s when you want to have horses and more land.

How much does the school district play into a sale in Montecito?

It can play into it a lot; if they have small children they really want Cold Spring or Montecito Union schools; no doubt about it.

Current Listings

On a recent Sunday, I headed out to examine a number of properties on the market and have separated them into the following price ranges:

Entry level: $1.9 million and less

Family level: $2 million to $6 million

Estate level: $6 million and above

ENTRY LEVEL

1930 N. Jameson Apt #A

$925,000

This condominium is the least expensive listing I could find in Montecito. It’s a small two-story dwelling, describing itself as a “3 bedroom 2 bath plus loft townhouse,” which would afford a small family the opportunity to send their children to Montecito Union School. If you’ve studied Taylor Orr’s piece elsewhere in this issue on private schools and their costs, you understand how valuable being in a Montecito school district can be. The townhome is within walking and biking distance from school and there is a family-style pool, spa and sauna within the complex. The unit boasts a fireplace and some mountain views.

671 Chelham Way

$1,650,000

Cute, clean, 20-year-old ranch in the Cold Spring School District is situated in one of Montecito’s true “family” neighborhoods, within easy and safe walking distance to school and accessible to the nearby Westmont College campus (and its summer programs for kids). Complete with three bedrooms – the master suite is 17 feet by 16 feet – and two baths, this home also has a full-sized two-car garage, a small pleasant yard, and inside a relatively (three years old) new oven and range, and separate dining room.

128 Santa Elena Lane

$1,695,000

This neat and comfortable three-bedroom, two-bath ranch on almost a half-acre is located in one of Montecito’s hidden enclaves, carved some 40 years ago out of what was a dairy farm. Walking distance to Coast Village Road and the beach, one can also walk to school without ever crossing a major street, especially if one learns the trail around the Montecito Creek Debris Basin, through Casa Dorinda, across Wyant, up Bonnie Lane, past what was once Crocodile Dundee’s home, and on to MUS. This home too is smack dab in the middle of a true family area with lots of kids nearby.

73 Seaview Drive

$1,950,000

Montecito Shores and Bonnymede combine to form Montecito’s seaside condo complex. The two-bedroom, two-bath unit is adjacent to Coral Casino and a sea-shell’s throw from the Biltmore, as well as a short walk from Coast Village Road and its amenities. Everything is new inside with features like granite counters, hand-rubbed wood cabinets, marble floors, and an ocean peek. More importantly, you’re in Montecito for less than $2 million. 79 Seaview Drive is also on the market, at $2,195,000.

FAMILY LEVEL

1510 Sinaloa Drive

$2,375,000

This is a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath single-story home on eight-tenths of an acre in a newer (1970s) neighborhood near MUS and the YMCA. Updating – as many homes in the area have already done – will only add more value to this well-located parcel, though it is comfortable and livable and appealing even as is. Good space, good yard, two-car garage.

537 Hodges Lane

$2,945,000

This sleek, modern three-bedroom, three-bath home has more of a city feel than a country ambience. Ultra modern and maintenance free in every way, it’s the kind of place in which one could simply lock the door and leave for a couple of months without worry. There is a two-car attached garage and some mountain views from the living room. Close to upper village.

1853 San Leandro Lane

$2,995,000

At this price point, you begin to taste more of Montecito’s quality of life: more land, more amenities, higher ceilings, and more living space. This cheerful, cherried-out single-story farmhouse is on a little more than half an acre features three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a separate guesthouse-studio-writer’s den-editing room-sound studio with its own bathroom. Indoor and outdoor fireplaces, kitchen sports marble countertops, Viking range, Sub-Zero refrigerator, and Bosch dishwasher; other notables include many French doors to the outside, walnut plank flooring, nickel hardware, outdoor copper lighting, and is wired for a top-of-the-line security system. It’s in the MUS school district and is skipping distance from Crane School.

460 Pimiento Lane

$2,995,000

This elegantly appointed three-bedroom two-and-a-half-bath craftsman-style home with a big inviting front porch sits on half an acre on what is a private road – with its own homeowners group and speed bumps. It features lots of light and a feeling of space, high-beamed ceilings, hardwood flooring, two-car garage, and is easily within walking distance to Mount Carmel, El Montecito, the Upper Village, and MUS.

1373 School House Road

$3,325,000

There is a lot of living space in this two-story, fully gated family home on a private lane which is, again, within easy walking distance of MUS, and equidistant from both the Upper Village and Coast Village Road. There is a den, with fireplace, off a galley-type kitchen, and both rooms lead out to the garden and the backyard barbecue area with its own built-in outdoor fireplace on this 1.09-acre property. Beamed ceilings, five bedrooms, four and a half bathrooms, 21-foot, 1-inch-by-24-foot, 10-inch living room, whirlpool bath off the 19-foot, 7-inch-by-13-foot, 9-inch master bedroom (with a small beehive wood-burning fireplace), connected to a walled-in porch that now does duty as an exercise room. One may have to spend more money to bring this 30-plus-year-old home up to date, but money is well spent in this neighborhood; the house next door recently sold in the $5-million range.

670 El Bosque Road

$4,200,000

The $12-million retirees I referred to earlier in this article would feel right at home in this 5,000-plus-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath estate-style home on a gated and fully fenced and landscaped acre accessed via a private stone bridge. And, it’s right in the middle of their price range. Finished basement wine cellar holds upwards of 1,000 bottles, and also features a full bar and TV room. Multiple fireplaces, top-of-the-line appliances, unusual vaulted wood log ceilings, and double-height entry way with winding staircase are among the many attractive qualities. Outside, a black-bottomed pool is graced with a waterfall and is surrounded by natural stone. While visiting this home, you could walk down the street to 570 El Bosque, where a large craftsman-style older home is also available at $3.62 million.

891 Toro Canyon

$4,450,000

You are no longer in a Montecito school district, but this brand new three-bedroom-plus Tuscan-styled home on a nearly ten-acre parcel features a 400-year-old front door, antique French oak flooring, Italian limestone fireplace mantels, front terraces with sweeping ocean and Channel Islands views, and back terraces featuring close-in mountain views. Many hidden quality touches throughout, like the blown glass and Swarovski crystal light fixtures, automated heated antique terra cotta tile floors, in-wall speaker system, Huber optic ceramic coated windows, wireless internet, 75-gallon water heater with re-circulating system, etcetera. Infinity lap pool in front looks out to the ocean. Full basement has toilet and sink, and dumbwaiter system runs from here to the second story bedroom. Twelve minutes to Pierre Lafond in the upper village.

ESTATE LEVEL

720 El Bosque Road

$6,495,000

This elaborate French Country Manor was designed by James Morris of Birnam Wood clubhouse fame, and features a large garden (designed by Grant Castleberg) and its own 5,000-gallon water well, which can be valuable during our often-parched summers. The wraparound terrace (and pavilion) can accommodate upwards of one hundred guests, if required. The double-door front entry features glass panes decorated with French wrought-iron grille work. Inside, a slate floor leads the eye to the large picture window in the 20-foot-by-21-foot living room and the giant oak directly outside. Master bedroom suite (37 feet by 17 feet) has a marble fireplace, hearth and seating area, leaded windows, and large closets. The 16-foot-by-13-foot kitchen connects to the open family “Great Room,” and includes a Sub-Zero refrigerator, double stainless sink, and well, all the facilities one would expect in an estate-level home.

1169 Hill Road

$24,900,000

This newly renovated nearly 6,000-square-foot home actually sits on two oceanfront acres, but the front acre with the tennis court that members of the Montecito Mafia tennis group are really unhappy to see go (actually two half-acre parcels), is being sold separately – for $11.9 million. A nearby two-acre parcel sold for $25 million and just closed recently (Wes St. Clair and Jo Ann Mermis, coincidentally enough, were the listing agents on that sale). Anyway, this home contains four bedrooms, four full and two half baths, with full-on ocean and island views. Separate his and hers master suites and large and spacious kitchen, living room, dining room, patio, guest bedrooms, and hallways make for an appealing abode.

Commissions

If you are a seller, be aware that commissions are not determined by law; they are agreed upon mutually between your listing agent and yourself. In a seller’s market, commission on a desirable well priced home can be as low as 3% or even a fixed fee. As the market becomes more difficult for sellers and swings towards buyers, commissions often rise. In Montecito, the average seems to be about 5%. Remember, it’s negotiable, but if you try to go too low, agents will be reluctant to show your home, so be fair. You need to make a profit, but they have to make a living.

Home Inspections

Montecito features a number of older homes, many of which were designed by well-known or even famous architects. Because of their age, however, there can be real problems uncovered during an inspection. Tom Valinote of Pillar to Post Professional Home Inspection offers these few tips on what to look for: water damage is the big one around here; even a 1/16-inch crack can allow enough water through to do serious damage; aluminum wiring used in the 1960s and ‘70s needs to be discovered and replaced; “chugging” drains may be a sign of faulty venting within the plumbing system; roof damage may be a sign of mold, rotting beams, or worse: check it out. Other sources of unwanted water are flowerbeds planted too close to exterior walls, or damp crawl spaces and basements.

The Bottom Line

That’s our real estate roundup. The bottom line? If you want to live like you’re wealthy, you will have to consider spending close to $4 million, but to get into the Montecito market in a reasonably attractive and expandable property, you can still do so for less than $3 million. It would be wise to inspect homes in the $1.6-million to $3-million range for their upgrade possibilities. Something small and old in a prestige location can be expanded and with the right vision may pay off handsomely.

Judging by the amount of traffic encountered on this February foray, my best guess is this will be a busy spring and summer selling season. Unless there is a recession – and California doesn’t seem headed that way… yet – I fully expect to see even higher prices for choice properties by the end of the year.