BID IT GOODBYE Auction: An Anne Arundel County family's dream house, a $1.5 million mansion they built themselves, goes on the block.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kassie Foundos flings open the door to her Georgian mansion.

"You were here the other day!" she gushes to a tall blond woman who smiles stiffly in response. "You had on black leather pants, I remember. Great outfit."

The woman barely looks Kassie in the eye and clicks in high heels across the marble foyer without being invited in. She doesn't give her name, and Kassie doesn't ask.

This is not a party. This is business.

Eager to free themselves of their Annapolis waterfront estate after watching it sit on the market untouched for two years, Kassie Foundos and her husband Mike are peddling their 16-room home the way other wealthy people sell paintings and race horses -- by putting it on the auction block.

This is no risk-free venture. The couple is offering the house they built themselves without so much as a minimum bid. The $1.5 million home may sell far above its market value -- or for as little as $1. Once the bidding starts, the Foundoses can't back out.

"I am not doing this to lose money, or just to make the mortgage payment," Mike said before the auction last Thursday. "I'm doing this to make money. You know what would satisfy me? Two million dollars."

But no one is mentioning money in this crowd at 3057 Rundelac Road.

Flute music floats up the high ceilings and around the double spiral staircases. Kassie's voice, laced with a slight Southern twang, fills the rooms with polite conversation. People eye the teak armoires, the family pictures, the walk-in closets. All the furnishings in the house are for sale.

Guests who paid the $10 entrance fee down glasses of punch, followed by lemon squares, raspberry tarts and fudge-drizzled cakes. Several people mistake Kassie's mother, Kitty Ruttkay, for the hired help. She pours them champagne anyway.

Three local Realtors stand in a circle, talking in hushed tones about what they think the house is really worth. Originally $1.5 million, the price dropped to $1.3 million just before the Foundoses pulled it off the market. These agents suspect it's worth much less.

Truly rich people "don't get swerved by emotion at auctions," says Realtor Joyce Roper. "That's really something you find more in the $250,000 to $500,000 range." Nearby, Ellen Bernstein, the woman who paid $1.7 million for Ragged Island at another auction, describes the eight-wheel car she bought to traverse her new land. (It's like a tank, but without the guns.)

Two women in the kitchen gab about liposuction. The flute player, hovering by the catered spread, meets an inquisitive glance. "I was hungry," he says, munching a cheese cube. "Can't I eat?"

Kassie is dressed in a rich creme-colored crepe suit, with silk buttons and a pearl choker wrapped around her neck. She looks as if she could be at a wedding, and wrings her hands with the same nervous energy a mother might as she waits for her daughter to walk down the aisle.

In a few minutes, at 6 p.m., several men in suits from an Alabama-based national auction company will corral the roughly 100 guests into a room, blow whistles, point fingers and shout numbers in Southern accents. It is a fast-paced business game that will leave one of these strangers with the house of the Foundoses' dreams.

In a far corner of the kitchen, Mike Foundos stands quietly, dressed in a black "funeral suit," as he calls it. He is waiting for the auction to start. He has grown testy over the past few days, watching 400 people tour the mansion but hearing not a single estimate of how much they will bid. Now, he just wants the ordeal to be over -- in a seven-digit kind of way.

"Am I happy today?" he asks dryly. "Ask me at 6:05 p.m."

When the Foundos family built this luxury estate near the South River in 1989, they had created a successful commercial real estate company with 20 shopping centers and office buildings across Anne Arundel County. The Washington-area natives were eager to move out of their smaller place on Catrina Lane in Annapolis, where they lived with their four children.

From the start, Mike, 50, and Kassie, 46, considered the home on Rundelac an investment. They were looking for buyers even before construction trucks roared onto the empty lot.

Spared no expense

The family spared no expense designing and building the estate, which they call the biggest in the city. It boasts imported marble under foot, soaring ceilings overhead, a pier, a boatlift, four fireplaces, two laundry rooms and huge windows throughout. Every one of the rooms in the red-brick mansion has something the Foundoses always wanted -- from the spectacular bathtub view to the playroom big enough to bowl in.

They built the home in a remote section of Annapolis along Aberdeen Creek on a 4-acre lot -- even the horse pasture across the street wasn't there when they moved in. The family cherished its privacy and created a haven.

Life was full of adventures then. They went on a safari, tooled around the Chesapeake in their motor boat, collected oil paintings. In this house Mike and Kassie threw parties and played host to guests from around the world. Their nephew married in the sun room, his bride walking down a circular staircase that seemed built for just such entrances.

The kids went crabbing off the dock and went for midnight swims in the pool. The family joke was that one day, somebody was actually going to swing from the chandelier.

Only one child still lives at home, Alexis, a 14-year-old who is outgrowing what she jokingly calls the "nursery," the girl's room she and her mother designed.

But it's not just Alexis' room that no longer fits the family. "We roll around in here like marbles in a big box," says Kassie.

More than the size and shape, the most unwieldy part of the house is its expense.

By 1993, the Foundoses sold off all but four of their commercial properties. The house, with an average monthly heating bill of $675, cost hundreds more to keep up. The couple did not make a dent in the $665,000 loan they took out to build the place.

Since deciding on the auction in January, their privacy evaporated. A large sign and free circulars sat on their front yard advertising the event. Kassie suspected neighbors whispered, "Does this mean they're bankrupt?"

Downsizing

Kassie says the auction is all about downsizing, getting rid of the "things" that were never very important anyway. Not too long ago, the family sold the boat and plans to rent a small townhouse in a condominium development.

Perhaps if the Foundoses had lowered the list price on the home, they would have sold it by now. But Mike and Kassie want more than $1 million, and think only an auction can lasso it. They liken the lure of an auction to gambling at Las Vegas or winning at lotto. It is for risk-takers with money -- the property owner's equivalent to leaping 10 cars on a motorcycle.

"They're looking for The Deal," says Mike.

"Plus, you wouldn't believe the people with money out there," adds Kassie.

The two should know -- they have flown all the way to Florida to bid on a shopping center on a whim. The buzz about the property, the excitement of the auction all combine to get the bidding higher and higher.

"I went to one auction thinking, 'I'm only going to bid $700,000,' and then out of my mouth comes a million five. And I didn't even need it," Mike says. "But I always woke up and said, 'What am I doing?' I always caught myself."

He hopes he can't say the same for his guests.

Say a little prayer

It's 6:11. Kassie and Mike stand with their heads bent in the living room, hands joined with those of a minister, praying for a good auction.

William Bone, head of the National Auction Group that sells only trophy homes, emerges in the doorway with a whistle dangling from his mouth. It's time to go.

For weeks, the auctioneers told the Foundoses that as long as they had five or six bidders, they stood a strong chance of success. Now 17 people are registered, and a current of excitement courses through the corridors of the house. Kassie has breathlessly told her husband that some people who wanted to join couldn't because their opening bids were too low.

The rules of the auction are simple. To enter, bidders must submit a certified check of $75,000 -- although everyone gets that sum back at the end. The Foundos family can call off the auction before the bidding begins, but not once the first offer is placed.

To warm up the crowd, Eddie Haynes, an auctioneer in a red, white and blue tie, has them practice on a bottle of 1988 Dom Perignon champagne. William Bone rubber-bands a $100 bill to the bottle. The crowd is feisty. Several people bid. The champagne sells for $210.

Eddie wastes no time -- the crowd is ready.

"The only question left here tonight is 'How much is this house going to go for?" he booms.

Kassie grips a door frame. She tries to lighten the tension in the jam-packed room by whispering to Alexis, "Somebody yell FIRE!" but it doesn't help. Mike has disappeared.

The bidding begins

"The time is ready. The time has come. The time is upon us," Eddie shouts. "Do I hear $1.5 million?"

Eddie sweeps an arm around the glass-walled sun room. The crowd is quiet. Eddie waits. Nothing happens.

After a pause, Eddie starts the bidding again. "I want you all to participate, this is for everybody," he coaxes. This time, the figure starts much lower. "Do I hear $400,000?" he asks.

Sluggishly, the bids start rolling in. Robert Neal, a man in a black leather jacket who says little other than that he flew in from Albuquerque, starts to parry with a couple from Kensington.

Mr. Neal matches each offer, upping the ante by $50,000. The bidding climbs to $600,000. Then, slowly, toward $700,000. Finally, Mr. Neal offers $800,000. The bidding stalls.

Eddie asks anybody, anybody to bid higher. He gives the crowd a five-minute break to think about it. He even turns in Mr. Neal's direction, looking for a better figure.

"I can't outbid myself," retorts Mr. Neal, a retired federal employee who refuses to say where exactly he's from or what he did for the government. The rumor is he wants this property as a summer home.

The crowd gets antsy. A bidder who stopped participating seconds into the auction hoists himself off the coach to leave. Under his breath, an auction staffer says "We've maxed out." The number-calling stops. Mr. Neal goes outside to smoke a cigarette.

The Foundoses don't join him.

The end is in sight

The auction crew collects the dirty champagne glasses and sweeps cake crumbs off the floor. They have declared the day a success.

Andy Jackson Bone, who co-owns the auction company with his brother and worked closest with the Foundoses, is excited because Mr. Neal agreed to buy all the furniture in the house. Andy is in the living room telling the family how great it was that so many people showed up.

William Bone is telling folks he had a feeling $800,000 would be the final price. Then he goes to confer with his next client, Philip Zaffere, who invented Stove Top stuffing and owns "an absolutely gorgeous, huge beach house" in Oxford on the Eastern Shore.

Several auction workers, leaving to get crabs and ribs for dinner, turn off the chandelier light.

Mike Foundos stands in a doorway. His face is ashen.

"I just lost a half a million dollars," he says numbly. His children look at him. Some of them have been crying. The bid was not high enough to cover their mortgage, let alone turn a profit.

The family huddles, speaking softly in the house they no longer own. They have a month to move out, but they will try to leave sooner.

Kassie tells everyone she's fine. That this is all a good thing, somehow. She rights a wedding photograph of her daughter, Kristin, that toppled in the pandemonium.

"We're not promised tomorrow," she says. "We've got wonderful, fabulous children. Everything else is just possessions. Just things. And it's always easy to find those."

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