It's tough to own a mansion.
Just ask scores of Baltimore area millionaires who don't want to live in them anymore -- and are panicking as their luxury estates fall into disrepair, languish on the market and get grabbed at prices as low as half off.
"It's a terrible ordeal -- very hard on the nerves," said Michael Foundos, 50, a commercial real estate mogul who had tried for two years to sell his Annapolis home for $1.5 million without so much as one offer. "We've been fairly depressed about it."
Mr. Foundos is so desperate to move his South River estate that he has put the house and all its contents on the auction block -- with no minimum bid. Nearby, homeowner Mary Rose has offered a $10,000 bounty to any real estate agent who can sell her waterfront home by next month. And construction entrepreneur Bill Sims, getting a little antsy, just knocked $1 million off his asking price.
Since when did owning a dream home become such a nightmare?
Realtors call it a simple problem of supply and demand: too many mansions, not enough millionaires.
The mansion glut is particularly visible along the developed coast of Anne Arundel County, filled with luxury homes built during the 1970s and 1980s, when the market was booming and there were few limits on shoreline development.
Realtors unloaded roughly one mansion a month in 1995; 27 remain for sale.
Meanwhile, 85 more homes are listed between $750,000 and $999,999, some marked down from seven digits after months on the market.
"For Sale" signs started sprouting up in pricey neighborhoods in 1989 -- the same year the Foundos family broke ground on its 16-room waterfront mansion.
Normally, this family might object to the auction billboard and box of free circulars outside the Georgian-style home.
But not these days, when three of their neighbors on the cul-de-sac also are trying to sell their houses for $1.7 million, $1.4 million and $1.2 million.
Now, scores of potential bidders are traipsing up their double mahogany staircases and across the Carrara marble floors as Thursday's auction nears. It's stressful, watching little children fondle their precious ostrich egg collection, but that's not the worst part. The Foundos family could watch their home be sold for as little as $75,000, because the only rule of the auction is that bidders arrive with a certified check for that amount. Once the auction starts, the family cannot reject the winning bid.
"I like living on the edge," shrugs an optimistic Kassie Foundos, 46, who is praying for a crowd of high rollers. To that end, she invited a slew of celebrities to her auction, including super-model Cindy Crawford, actor Antonio Banderas and every member of the Cleveland Browns football team.
But with mansion prices so low, there's another problem: Not everyone who can afford these homes is drawn to the luxurious lifestyle that comes with them.
"People say to me, 'But Gary, I don't need waterfront. I never even go on the water -- I don't even own a boat,' " said Gary Kaukonen, who heads Coldwell Banker's Arundel branch. "I just tell them, 'Listen, you'll enjoy the view.' "
Charlie Buckley, an Arundel Realtor known locally as "Mister Waterfront," said the list prices of 10 of the 22 most exclusive mansions on the market have dropped between $100,000 and $1 million during the last year. He is busier than ever, scoping out steals.
"I like to call the people who use me the 'Nieman Marcus bargain basement' shoppers," he said. "These are people who have a lot of money, but everything they get, they want on sale."
Mike Scarborough bought his mansion for more than half off -- it was once valued at $1.5 million, and he paid roughly $750,000. With the money he saved, he is ripping down most of the 1970s rancher and rebuilding it as a Gothic hideaway. The 42-year-old money manager said the property deteriorated after the last owner rented it for only $1,000 a month. Mr. Scarborough said he was not prowling for a great deal -- he paid what the property deserved.
"We didn't skin anybody," he insisted as he wandered the grounds of his new Annapolis property, where he is tearing down the middle of the house to build a giant showroom for the stuffed leopards, bear, antelope and other animals he has hunted. "We got it for what it was worth."
The brokers competing for these sales can't always find such bargains. So they try to infuse a little romance in their sales pitches -- offering not just suburbia, but something far more glamorous and transporting.
Instead of houses, these Realtors sell "showplaces." Those aren't backyards but "country estate settings." And don't mention ceilings and windows -- they are "soaring wood beams" and "walls of glass." Even the bathrooms are advertised with great views.
Realtor Carolyn Mathias makes videos to market her clients' homes, complete with soothing jazz music tinkling in the background. The camera pans from gleaming kitchen appliances to romping horses along sun-dappled fields.
But if these homes are so great, why are they all for sale? Owners, many of them in mid-life, say they need less space, have less money and want less hassle.
Mary Rose feels burdened by the bay-front home whose floor plan is so expansive that even her white terrier, Bridget, gets full run of a room. After an auction failed to attract an acceptable bid and a Realtor's two-year campaign fell flat, Ms. Rose cut the price from $1.2 million to $795,000.
"At one point, we thought an exclusive waterfront home would be money in the bank for us," sighed Ms. Rose, 49, who raised four children there. "I guess we'll have to find another way to get our kids through college."
Bill Sims never wanted to die in his Jefferson colonial. It was supposed to be a good short-term investment.
But after living there six years, he can't find a buyer and has slashed the price from $3.9 million to $2.9 million.
"We knew the kids were going to get out of school, and we thought we'd cash in our chips," said Mr. Sims, 49, an Annapolis construction contractor.
"There just aren't as many chips, and there isn't as much cash."
Now he is eager to move out -- and move on.
"I'm going to have a lot more fun in 1,200 square feet than in 12,000," he vows. "To tell you the truth, it would make me a lot happier not to own any property at all."