Sky's the limit: County estate sales could set record

Money no object? Looking for the ultimate Christmas gift? Forget the Neiman Marcus catalogue with its $12 million Lear jet. Forget Victoria's Secret's $11 million diamond and sapphire-encrusted holiday "fantasy bra."

Look no further than your own backyard for this year's gift extraordinaire. Three Albemarle County properties are on the market for $9 million plus: Chapel Springs Farm, Mirador, and Mount Juliet Farm.

Mirador, one of the most famous properties in Greenwood, is offered by Jos. T. Samuels Realty for $14.5 million. Built in 1842 and purchased by railroad baron Chiswell Dabney Langhorne in 1893, it was the childhood home of Irene Langhorne, wife of artist Charles Dana Gibson, and Nancy Langhorne, who married Lord Astor and later assumed his seat in Britain's House of Commons.

Even with all that history, what are the chances that Mirador and its 189 acres will fetch the $14.5 million asking price?

Local real estate agent Ross Stevens is wary. "I don't have any buyers in that price range," he says. "Look at Verulam," he continues. "Less than a year ago, that property with 550 acres sold for $6.8 million. And Verulam backs up to a 1,000-acre wildlife refuge.

"The market does move quickly," he adds, "but I don't see that much movement."

Roger Voisinet, another local agent, is philosophical. "Records are always going to be broken in real estate," he says, "but the fact that one person overpays for something doesn't mean similar properties are worth the overpaid amount."

Hmmm. Could that mean that Chapel Springs Farms Holdings LLC, owners of Chapel Springs Farm– with its 1,622 acres in Free Union– might be overreaching?

"Anything I'd say about that would be speculation," Voisinet says. "I haven't seen the place."

Stevens notes that while a lot of those acres are mountain land, the property is virtually one of a kind. Even so, "How they're justifying those prices is a mystery to me," he says.

Who's likely to be in the market for these two properties– or Mount Juliet Farm's 541 acres in Crozet, which McLean Faulconer has listed for $9.5 million? Voisinet points out, "Overall, Albemarle is an attractive place. Charlottesville is perceived to be a safe city with lots of cultural attractions, so it's interesting to people."

But still, nineteen point five million dollars? If agent Venable Minor, father of internet millionaire Halsey Minor, manages to sell Chapel Springs Farm for the asking price, it will set a record for county property, exceeding even the $17 or $18 million paid by currently-on-trial Tyco tycoon Mark Swartz for Keene's 1,400-acre Enniscorthy in 2001.

"But that was funny money," Stevens says. "These numbers are unheard of."

Stevens also has a theory about the sort of buyer who might be in the market for properties with such hefty price tags. "First we had the coming in. They made it quickly, and they spent it just as quickly. Then we had the influx of stock market money."

But those halcyon days are over, Stevens notes. "I don't know where this money will be coming from," he says, "but these are emotional buys. No one's going to buy property like this for investment."

He points out that Mirador's acres are in a permanent open space easement, which means no development potential. In addition, available tax benefits for that sort of much-ballyhooed preservation device have already been realized.

Still, "People are fleeing more expensive areas," Voisinet notes. "A lot of foolish things have happened in real estate."

And we all know the holidays can be an especially foolish time– when some people throw good sense to the wind. If you already have the Lear jet and the jeweled bra, there's probably still time to snag one of these offerings.

Ring up an agent, complete the deal, and tuck the deed in your darling's stocking. Then have yourself a merry little Christmas.