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Million-dollar homes moving

Sam Spatter
| Friday, December 2, 2011 12:00 a.m

Arturo Alamo and his wife, Kobbie, moved from Seattle to Western Pennsylvania a year ago after he decided to buy six local McDonald’s restaurants.

They rented for about six months, then considered building a home in Westmoreland County. That plan changed when Maureen Ruefle of Howard Hanna Real Estate showed them a house in Unity that initially was listed at $1 million.

“That house had all the bells and whistles we wanted,” Kobbie Alamo said, “so we decided to buy it, and at a price slightly lower at $970,000.”

Sales of $1 million-plus homes are rising in the region, despite a tough economy and slow housing market. Through October this year, 58 houses in the five-county Pittsburgh region sold for $1 million or more, according to RealStats, a South Side-based real estate information company.

That’s three more than the 55 that sold in all of 2010, and 14 ahead of the 44 sold in 2009, said Dan Murrer, RealStats vice president. Top recent years for sales of new and existing million-dollar homes were 2006, with 64, and 2007, with 62.

Primrose Homes of Cranberry is one of the region’s major million-dollar home builders, and owner Jeff Martin said his customers include corporate executives or retired executives, plus physicians, financial planners, small-business owners and professional athletes. Other real estate experts say attorneys, along with professionals who work in the booming natural gas production industry, are looking for top-quality housing.

Corporate relocations and the Marcellus shale industry have “brought higher-income families into the region, and they are strong candidates to buy these homes,” said George Hackett, president of Coldwell Banker Real Estate Services.

The Alamos’ 6,400-square-foot house in Unity, which sold at just under the $1 million level, has four bedrooms, an exercise room and a studio where Kobbie Alamo writes fiction. The setting has the privacy they wanted. The couple installed a home theater, and Kobbie Alamo describes their home as a “pocket of gold.”

Fox Chapel has had the highest number of million-dollar home sales so far this year, with 10, followed by Squirrel Hill with eight, according to RealStats. Sewickley Heights, Shadyside, Edgeworth and Ligonier also are high on the list.

Since 2000, there have been 508 house sales for $1 million or more, and 402 of them were in Allegheny County. Westmoreland County was second in the region with 41, followed by Washington County with 32. Butler County had 29 such sales.

The sales totals, while low compared to larger cities, reflect the stability and economic confidence that remain in the area, real estate experts said. Martin, who builds some million-dollar homes on “spec,” without a buyer signed up, said customers are attracted to higher-priced new homes in the region because they are a good value.

“We are getting better value out of our supply chain — better quality products at lower prices — because suppliers are finding fewer sales for their materials” due to the construction downturn, he said.

A strong construction labor force in the region lowers builders’ profit margins, and very low mortgage rates also factor in, he said.

Martin has built six $1 million-plus homes this year, half on spec, and all have sold to local buyers. He is finishing up another, $1.8 million house in Pine, and plans to build a “green,” or energy efficient, house in Shadyside that will cost about $500,000.

Buyers of high-priced homes look for different features that suit their lifestyles these days. “The large mansions with big foyers and grand staircases are not as popular today as they were in the 1980s,” said John Hobart Miller Jr., of building firm John Hobart Miller Inc. of O’Hara.

He builds a half-dozen million-dollar homes a year, and said his customers want amenities such as a home office, theater, exercise room, a wine cellar, heated floors in the master bath and closets large enough to be dressing rooms.

“These are not first-time home buyers, but sophisticated buyers who like large dining rooms for entertainment and large kitchens where guests and family can sit near the cooking areas and have conversations with the cooks,” he said. Today, his clients are in the 35- to 45-year-old age group. In the 1980s, more were in their mid-50s.

But older homes, including fine old mansions in the Squirrel Hill and Shadyside areas that have been modernized, also are being sold at top dollar.

“Since this fall, there have been more higher-priced houses being sold in the region than the lower-priced ones, said Helen Hanna Casey, president of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services. The lower-priced homes were more popular in the early part of last year when the federal government offered tax credits of up to $8,000 to first-time homebuyers or up to $6,500 for repeat buyers.

“Often, when we learn of homeowners planning to place their home on the market for $1 million or more, we will call individuals we know who are interested in these type of houses and they sell quickly and never really go on the market,” she said.

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