707-acre estate on the waterfront in Cecil County A MANSION ON THE BLOCK

September 18, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

EARLEVILLE -- As eager as he is to sell his 707-acre waterfront estate in Cecil County, William J. Crocker said he won't be too upset if no one bids high enough when his McGill Creek Farm is put up for auction Sept. 24.

"We'll just stay here," said the third-generation developer, who also owns a winter home in Boca Raton, Fla. "There's worse fates."

Worse fates, for sure, than staying in a Georgian-style mansion with 12 bedrooms, 10 full baths, a heated swimming pool, a tennis court and a wet bar with gold-plated faucet foot pedals.

Until health problems prompted him to put the estate on the market, Mr. Crocker and his wife, Helen Ann, had planned to spend six months a year in the Eastern Shore dream house they had built on an undeveloped farm they bought near the Sassafras River in 1986.

When it was put up for sale nearly two years ago, at an asking price of $15,235,000, McGill Creek Farm and its 1-year-old mansion became one of the most expensive rural luxury homes in Maryland's real estate market.

Even when the price was dropped to $14.9 million earlier this year, the property remained one of the priciest by state standards. There were plenty of lookers but no takers, said Mr. Crocker, who is looking to move full-time to Florida.

"I've had people who I thought were serious about buying, but when it came time to put down the money, they didn't have any," he said.

So Mr. Crocker searched for another way to liquidate the farm. The option he chose was an auction with reserve, meaning he has the right to reject all bids that do not meet an undisclosed minimum selling price.

While Mr. Crocker's minimum price is expected to range in the double-digit million-dollar range, the McGill Creek Farm auction could produce a buyer that the conventional market has been unable to find.

"I personally feel like someone's going to come away with a bargain," said Mike Keracher, marketing consultant for the Alabama-based J. P. King Auction Co., the firm in charge of the sale. "This is a kind of property you don't see often in this area."

J. P. King's strategy, said Mr. Keracher, was to advertise Mr. Crocker's property in the Wall Street Journal and other large metropolitan newspapers along the East Coast.

By publicizing the sale as an auction, interested but unhurried buyers were pushed to make up their minds whether they wanted the estate, which includes $3 million worth of furnishings in the main residence.

"An auction sort of forces a decision," Mr. Keracher said.

Mr. Crocker said he was pleased with the results immediately. Prospective buyers from as far away as Canada called for more information and the flow of unwanted traffic down the 1.6-mile driveway to the house almost stopped.

"Sometimes when you advertise in a magazine," he said, "people just drive in. Now a lot of foreign buyers are interested, not just somebody coming in and taking a look."

To make the auction less overwhelming, Mr. Crocker has agreed to break up the farm into three parcels if necessary: the mansion grounds and 8,000 feet of waterfront; a 553-acre farm with a barn complex and a tenant house; and a one-acre lot with an unfinished frame house.

And to limit what some Realtors describe as "vulture buyers," who may mistakenly believe that McGill Creek Farm is up for a distress auction, Mr. Crocker said he will hold 75 percent of the mortgage.

Interested buyers toured the houses and grounds last weekend for the first of two open houses. Parties can inspect the estate this weekend from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Determined to make the auction what Mr. Keracher described as "an event" for some residents in the southern Cecil County community, J. P. King and Patterson Schwartz Real Estate have planned an exclusive mini-sale the same day as the main auction, which will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24.

"We're inviting some of the other farm owners who, for a small donation, can come to a catered affair on the terrace and bid for some piece of the furnishings," said Mr. Keracher. The proceeds will go to the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"We may have upwards of 50 to 100 people there," said A. John Price, a salesman with Patterson Schwartz. "But probably only 10 percent will be serious buyers."

Auctions like Mr. Crocker's have become an accepted alternative to the conventional long-term listing arrangement, though some Realtors in Maryland said they are not frequent enough to be called a trend.

But on the Eastern Shore, which is home to many large plantation-style estates dating to Colonial times, auctions are increasingly popular.

"Before the 20th century, most homes here were sold through auction," said James Kazunas, vice president of DeCaro Real Estate Auctions in Easton. "We're seeing a return to that now."

"I think it's the wave of the future," said Mr. Crocker, who has worked in the real estate industry for years but never put property up for auction. "You hit a bigger market in a shorter

time."

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