Sellers may have to be twice lucky

Auction: After winning the lottery and building a multimillion-dollar house, a Howard County couple may have trouble finding a buyer.

April 01, 2001|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

You drive down the road and you can tell immediately that Gaither Farm is not your typical Ellicott City neighborhood. Along its rolling terrain are homes ranging from $500,000 to $1 million and change. Big homes on oversized lots.

Except for one: the stone-and-stucco castle on Gaither Farm Road.

This happens to be the "oversized home" on the big, open lot.

23,363 square feet of living space, sitting forward on 5.34 acres.

190 feet in width.

23 rooms.

Ceilings that soar to 30 feet.

Six bedrooms.

7 1/2 bathrooms.

A 50-by-20-foot heated outdoor, in-ground pool.

An assessed value of $2.7 million.

This is the home of Alonza J. and Shirley A. Richardson, winners of a $20.9 million Powerball lottery jackpot in October 1994.

And they hope that sometime around 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel, an auctioneer's gavel will come down, and their association with one of Howard County's most controversial and publicized properties will come to an end.

But will it?

"I can tell you this, that we have people registered, but I can't give you the number of people that we have registered," said Michael Fine, senior vice president of Chicago-based Sheldon Good & Co., which is handling the auction. "I can tell you that we had anticipated a stronger level of registration."

"At the same time, we have seen significant interest, and it looks like we will have a very competitive bid call. And I think someone is going to end up with a good deal based on what we are seeing right now," Fine said, adding that those wishing to participate must present a certified or cashier's check for $175,000 - 10 percent of the suggested opening bid of $1.75 million.

Although it's said that every home has a buyer, a cross-section of local industry professionals is raising questions and expressing doubts that the auction will meet with the kind of success the Richardsons may envision.

Simply, the consensus is that the residence - which dwarfs nearby homes - is overbuilt and overpriced for the neighborhood. And if it is overbuilt and overpriced, couldn't a bidder seeking a multimillion-dollar home find a more suitable house somewhere else?

Those critics of the Romanesque-style home with its soaring arches, columns and hundreds of windows, also take aim at the lot's lack of privacy: The home is visible from the street and shares a driveway with its neighbors to the right. They also note its high maintenance costs, utility bills, taxes and the fact that it sits behind an unimproved lot.

"It is an extremely unique property," said Tom Pirritano, who has been appraising houses in Howard County since the 1970s and was one of the appraisers used during construction of the Richardson house.

"For the location where it is, it is going to require someone to want to live in Howard County, first and foremost," Pirritano said. "Quite honestly, there are many comparable homes in parts of Baltimore County - and certainly Montgomery County - that would be more attractive because they would be surrounded by similar homes. ... People who purchase a multimillion-dollar home prefer to be in a multimillion-dollar neighborhood."

Fine is no stranger to the Baltimore area, having orchestrated distressed condominium auctions at The Colonnade, Scarlett Place and Pavilion in the Park in Pikesville. He said he is well aware of the drawbacks.

"If you look at the picture of the exterior, the house makes a real statement. Either you are going to like it, or not. Some people will, and some people won't," Fine said, adding that once inside most people are "astonished" at how well the interior is designed.

But it is the privacy issue that continues to be a hurdle for Fine.

"It is something that comes up. With some people yes and some people no," Fine said. "I would say that for some people who want total privacy ... living in a subdivision doesn't work for them, maybe a gated subdivision, but not this type of feel. It is really a personal matter, and I meet people on both sides of the coin."

Joan Cochran, a veteran Howard County real estate agent who has sold numerous high-end homes to clients with deep pockets, isn't so sure that luxury buyers will embrace the Richardson residence.

"Most of the buyers I've had for higher-priced houses would not want that situation of being that exposed and that large of house for that small of lot," Cochran said. "It is a very large house for any area. And the fact [is] that it should have a little more land with it and a little more screening, but it doesn't."

Pat Hiban, an associate broker with Re/Max Advantage in Columbia, called the home "a white elephant" for any area.

"It is definitely overimproved compared to the other houses in the neighborhood; there is no doubt about it. But it is still a nice street. It is still a nice area," said Hiban, who sold a 9,000-square-foot home in 1997 on Gaither Farm Road for $1.05 million.

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