Celebs Play Musical Chairs With Hollywood Homes


May 9, 2006 — -- In the heated Hollywood real estate market, things are status quo -- Jack recently bought Marlon's old pad, newly-single Nick snatched up Heidi and Seal's Bel Air digs, while ex-wife Jessica moved into Ellen's Beverly Hills mansion, the one she bought from an Australian widely known by the prefix "Crocodile."

Last names? They don't need them, which is at least part of the reason they're buying from each other.

Celebrities selling homes among themselves is nothing new, particularly in Los Angeles. In a town where fame and finances shift with the whims of television viewers and box-office receipts, the luxury real estate market fluctuates with the fortunes of the town's entertainment industry.

"Somebody gets a show, somebody loses a show … L.A. is a company town in every sense of the word -- the entertainment industry is really tied to the economics and that's obviously tied to the real estate market," said Dorothy Carter of Sotheby's International Realty in the Los Feliz section of Hollywood.

Carter works with high-end clients in the east Hollywood Hills market that has seen the likes of Madonna, Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt purchase homes in the past decade. She has completed sales to and from numerous celebrities and said they remain a market-making force for local real estate.

Part of the incestuous appeal of celebrity-to-celebrity transactions lies in the dearth of homes deemed acceptable for both the image and utilitarian needs of the high-profile buyers, Carter said. Gated homes that keep the paparazzi out and still include elaborate toys like movie screening rooms and tennis courts are sometimes hard to come by. Many stars believe they're most likely to find these provisions met in homes owned by people with similar needs.

"The privacy is the big thing, and you're automatically limited in the number of homes that offer the types of things they want and also give them privacy," Carter said.

The status boost of buying from another celebrity also likely plays a role. Up-and-coming actors and entertainment moguls looking to emulate their Hollywood predecessors may find no better avenue than buying their homes.

Jack Nicholson's purchase of Marlon Brando's $5 million Hollywood home may represent the crowning of a new head of Hollywood royalty. It's a hierarchy-changing move that many younger celebrities and their business managers take into account as they try to mold their images.

"There's an aura factor. If you can own the house of someone who is a bigger star, you're going for the aura and status of that bigger star," said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

The explosion of celebrity-based media has accelerated the real estate market's image considerations. Thirty years ago, media devoted to celebrity living was limited to small circulation fan magazines and, later, Robin Leach's now quaint "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" television show.

Now the American obsession with celebrity culture has given rise to a booming industry of magazines, shows and even television networks devoted to stars' lifestyles. Today's celebrities are likely to feel more pressure to live up to the movie star lives that fans expect of them, leading many to think of their homes as just another accessory, Thompson said.

As a result, the musical chairs of celebrity home ownership fuels magazine content and generates huge profits for publishers. The economic effects can even ripple as low as the cottage industry of celebrity-home map sales and tourist companies that surround Los Angeles.

Kami Farhadi, owner of Starline Tours of Hollywood, which takes vacationers on bus tours past the homes of Hollywood celebrities, said that his company follows the tabloids closely to find out who has purchased a new home and which celebrities might be divorcing in order to figure who might be moving next.

Farhadi's company pays an outside service to track celebrity real estate transactions and fact-check whatever is printed in the tabloids. If customers don't believe they're seeing the real move stars' homes, they're not likely to pay for the tours, Farhadi said.

"When you become famous, it's because you want to be famous, because that drives their income," Farhadi said. "It's a benefit to them to have their homes seen, and it's a benefit for us to make sure we know what they're doing."

Thompson noted that buying the home of just any celebrity is not enough. Calculations are likely to evaluate not only the mortgage and local property taxes but also the status of the current homeowner's career compared to that of the prospective buyer. It's a complicated equation in which business managers are wary of any decision that could generate negative press.

"When you buy a home from another celebrity, you know it's going to be reported, so you calculate all of these things," Thompson said. "You want to be seen as an heir to the level of status of the home's previous owner, and not just that you're buying the castoff home that another star doesn't want anymore."

There are even some names that have become too taboo for anyone to associate with.

"Buying the home of Michael Jackson, for example, might not be the image statement that some people want to make," Thompson said.

In this sense, celeb home sales may offer a gauge on Hollywood culture -- who's upgrading, who's downgrading, who's hot and who's not.

Kevin Costner, once one of the biggest, most bankable actors in the world and an Oscar-winning director, recently sold the Hollywood Hills mansion he bought from fellow Oscar-winner actor Richard Dreyfuss.

But it was not another Oscar winner-to-be who continued the home's prestigious hand-me-down tradition. TV and radio talking head Ryan Seacrest, who is unlikely to make an Oscar acceptance speech anytime soon, bought the home for a reported $11.5 million.

So does the sale represent a shift in the Hollywood zeitgeist, a move away from the financial reward of artistic achievement to the new reality TV cultural phenomenon that spawned Seacrest's popularity? Perhaps, but it's probably simpler than that.

"He had the money," Carter said.

It's the one variable unlikely to change, regardless of career or image considerations -- if you can afford it, you can buy it.

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