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The high end of home economics: Aspen's trophy home phenomenon


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

ASPEN, Colo. - In 1989, the Denver-based Good Deed Land Co. bought a 10-acre mining claim on Aspen Mountain and offered it for resale at $10 per square inch. An additional $12.50 garnered a T-shirt stating "Aspen Landowner."

Nearly a decade later, a house in Aspen is still more a status symbol for the rich than a place to call home. Indeed, most of the town's trophy homes sit unoccupied for the greater part of the year. But that, after all, may be what a trophy home is all about.

According to the Aspen Board of Realtors, in 1997, about one-half of the $700 million spent on real estate in Aspen was for second homes. The point of these immaculately manicured "log cabins' and "country homes' is to provide a place for wealthy owners to periodically escape their other homes. And in the status game where the more you spend the better, two-bedroom condos go for $2 million, and before you know it, a house on trendy Red Mountain sells in 1997 for $19.7 big ones.

 Here's a look at the rising cost of shelter in Aspen:

1937 - house in town, furnished, with three lots: $450

1966 - one-acre lot on Red Mountain: $17,000

1972 - three-bedroom West End Victorian: $50,000

1974 - three-bedroom West End Victorian: $100,000

1976 - three-bedroom West End Victorian: $165,000

1977 - cost of living in Aspen: 137 percent of national average

1978 - five-bedroom with two fireplaces in Snowmass: $328,000

1993 - home site on 501 acres: $4.8 million

1994 - six-bedroom, six-bath house with ski-in/ski-out access and elevator: $19.9 million

1996 - lot near Hunter Creek, ready to build, no limits on house size, one wood-burning fireplace allowed: $6 million; Per capita income in Aspen: 191 percent of national average

1997 - Aspen rated third richest city in nation by Worth magazine, based on average sale price of a single-family home

1998 - Aspen rated richest city in nation by Worth magazine, based on the average price of a single-family home; $1.5 million is the average price of a single-family home in Aspen based on Aspen Board of Realtors data from November 1997 to May 1988

So what does a buyer get for a million bucks these days? An average middle-class home with three bedrooms, a yard and maybe a view. This is also what most Aspen buyers now call a "tear-down" or perhaps more graphically, a "wipe-away."

But if you're willing to dig deep and spend $24.9 million, there's Owl Creek Ranch 8, currently Colorado's most expensive single-family home. The 20,000 square foot monster dwelling is said to have it all: five bedrooms, four-car garage, six fireplaces, outdoor swimming pool with waterfall, views of both Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, the nearby resort rated the 10th richest city in America in 1998 by Worth magazine, and 67 acres located in a 852-acre enclave of 10 homes. Your neighbors will include Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

As for the low end, there isn't one for resort workers, though Aspen has worked hard to provide subsidized employee housing.

"Currently, there are no free-market, single-family homes available in Aspen for much under $700,000," says Brian Hazen, who works at Coates, Reid & Waldron, a Sotheby's affiliate.

Word of mouth, however, found us an amazing bargain - a 28-year-old, 1,020 square-foot trailer located in a surviving trailer court just 15 minutes from Aspen. The cost: $99,900, though you probably wouldn't boast about your ownership on a T-shirt.