Bebe’s listing has it all

#489 in a series of true experiences in real estate
May 2005, Hills Newspapers

What a grand May day it turned out to be. Starting off chilly, before noon the sun was shining and we were standing in a Berkeley garden joyfully exclaiming and pointing.

It’s quite a beautiful garden overlooking a fully wide bay view. I chattered to Anet at length. Did she see the orange poppies? And the huge single red ones? Even, pink, an incredible pink.

I’ve never seen purple alstroemeria. I guess purple is the color, not fuchsia, exactly. And the rosemary hedges, exceptional, so well grown. Wonder how they do it? Rosemary, so very green and tall, utterly even, no dead spaces between the little branches.

We were in the Berkeley hills looking at one of Bebe McRae’s new listings. Bebe is famous, probably with many, certainly with us. As I read through the new listings each week, I count how many are Bebe’s. “She’s got 3 this week,” I call to Anet.

This particular listing is priced at $5,000,000. A big price, even for Bebe, not many of those in Berkeley. One million or more, “one-point-three,” as agents say, even “one-point-six” has become heartbreakingly commonplace these days. But five million does command attention.

The price was one reason we were there to see it. But also, this property had been described as a family compound, several dwellings fronting on 2 streets, unusual in itself, and so we were curious. And from an appealing era, around 1920, designed by architect John Hudson Thomas.

We parked up the street and walked along enjoying spring gardens headed toward a group of agents chatting together on the sidewalk. The front of the property is unassuming, hedges and garages.

We had no way of knowing what lay beyond, and as we approached, Anet told me that she loves it that we get to see surprises. Down a flight of stairs, buildings set well apart on three sides of the gardens, was the bay hugely in sight. The architecture is imposing, yet gentle, fitting for the site. Thoughts of an especially luxurious resort came to mind.

We weren’t sure where to begin. We could see agents all around coming and going to the different buildings. We just went into the first door we saw and continued from there. An hour later we’d walked quickly through most of the property – 5 separate residences in 3 different buildings.

The largest of these was built as the main house but is now 3 separate apartments. It must have been quite a house when it was all together. Each apartment has its own entrance, living room, fireplace and bedrooms. My favorite includes a sunroom with a maple floor, the sun streaming in, the views over the gardens.

There are small-pane windows, oak and fir, “folded” roof lines, a finished attic area with large fir timbers and a trellis – simply wonderful – and on it, wisteria now in full flower.

In the used-to-be carriage house we stop to look closely at irregularly edged stones laid both as hearth and entry. Beautiful bluish stone, slate, maybe. It looks like they laid the stone down, drew around the edge, then cut the oak floor exactly before fitting the stone level with the surface of the floor. Very clever, we think, we must remember this for somewhere.

I look out from each of the living units and I think and dream about the family who lived here at the first and the one who lives here now. Would I want to do this, too? Nick in one apartment, Annie in another? Anet’s family here, close?

We all meet for breakfast in the big house? I don’t think we have enough family to fill it up.

There is a “sports court,” which Anet tells me has a basketball hoop. I must have been lost in the garden because I also missed the detached meditation room, and it wasn’t until later that Anet mentioned to me the separate sauna with full bath and the hot tub.

I listened to agents talking to one another. I hear that the property has never been on the open market before. A family does live here, bought the property directly only about 10 years ago and is now relocating.

Another agent says she’s walked by this property a thousand times and never guessed what was here. There is teasing, “Why don’t we buy it? I want the upstairs in the carriage house.” To a loan broker walking through, “Hey, Steve, think you can get us 100% financing?”

In the garden is one main border, large, probably 30 to 40 feet long and 20 feet wide. Oval in shape, I think. I go back to look at it again and again from different sides. The design seems so simple, like child play, but if that’s so, why haven’t I ever grown a border like this?

Daylilies, alstroemeria, irises, different colors of each. Large clumps of each plant. Must be very good soil, good watering, and the plants have all been pinched back frequently. Kept under control, encouraged to be full and bushy. I love this border.

It has occurred to me over the years that I have been in real estate that for some properties, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. If what you want isn’t available, that’s just how it is.

For example, suppose that someone had come to me 20 years ago wanting individual but close together Berkeley homes for 5 families. Interesting architecture, bay views, garden, good shape. Even if price was not an object, this might have been their first opportunity.

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