Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly described which real estate agency handled the listing for the most expensive house sold in Washington to date. Randall Hagner listed the Bowie-Sevier mansion, sold last year for $25 million. Washington Fine Properties represented the purchaser.
$49 Million. In This Economy?

By Sandra Fleishman
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 4, 2008

The historic Evermay estate in Georgetown, which went on the market for $49 million last week, set a record for the highest price ever sought for a residential property in the Washington area, but it also set a lot of tongues wagging about its debut during an economic maelstrom.

"God, the timing was horrible," said one real estate agent who declined to be identified because, well, criticism just isn't done publicly in the real estate business. "For anyone to spend that kind of money in a good economy would be one thing, but with the news we've seen lately about the economy, the timing couldn't have been worse."

The listing with Long & Foster caught a lot of attention -- stories appeared in The Post, on the radio and elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal printing an item on the listing next to an article headlined "Wall Street's Woes Hit Highest End; Some Luxury Properties See Slowdown as Jittery Buyers Head for Exits" was like pouring salt in the wound, said another agent.

Other agents were more diplomatic about the future of the 216-year-old estate on 3 1/2 acres on 28th Street NW in Georgetown. The estate, which sits high on a hill with views of Rock Creek Park and the Washington Monument, has 22 rooms -- including eight bedrooms, six bathrooms and five half-baths -- a gatekeeper's house, a free-standing studio and 100 parking spaces. Owned by one family since diplomat F. Lammot Belin purchased it in 1923, Evermay has been assessed by the District at $14.7 million.

"It's a premiere property, and it just takes one buyer to accept that price," said Cathie Gill, a veteran high-end agent and owner of Cathie Gill Inc. in Washington. Gill, who set the District's then-high-price record in 1985 by selling Sen. Jay Rockefeller's 15-acre Crestwood estate for $6.6 million and who three years ago sold the 16.2-acre Northwest holdings of assassinated billionaire Rafiq Hariri for $22 million, calls Evermay "a real jewel that should be maintained."

Still, Gill sees the challenge: "It's hard, it's very hard now, because a lot of people have really had lifestyle changes recently. . . . Do I think it will go for $49 million? I don't know. But if you can afford it, you get a lot for your money there."

Jane Fairweather, a top lister with Coldwell Banker in Bethesda, is frank: "Anything being sold in this market needs to look like it's being sold wholesale, not retail. So if that's an $80 million property going for $49 million, it might work."

Fairweather noted that Evermay has a lot more acreage than Halcyon House, which sits on a half-acre on Prospect Street NW and was listed at $30 million in August.

Other luxury-home agents acknowledge that Evermay is a one-of-a-kind offering. Thomas B. Anderson, president of Washington Fine Properties, said Evermay is "highly important historically . . . and it's not been offered on the market for what, almost 100 years." His agency handled the listing for the most expensive sale in the city to date, the 1810 Bowie-Sevier mansion at 31st and Q streets NW, sold by developer Herbert Miller last year for $25 million. (The asking price was $28 million.)

The "ultimate purchaser," Anderson said, "is going to be somebody . . . who is able to see what's beyond this particular market, to recognize the importance of this property."

Evermay's listing agents -- Susie Maguire, Jeanne Livingston and Susan Daves of Long & Foster in Georgetown -- said their price is based on the property's one-of-a-kind status. "Where else has there been something like this, on 3 1/2 acres in the choicest part of Georgetown?" Livingston said.

"We looked at all the different parts -- the location, the grounds, the house and its history -- it's like an antique, the crème de la crème. And the total is more than all the separate parts together," Maguire said.

Maguire and Livingston said the timing of the sale was the decision of the family. A family member had lived in the house as recently as three years ago, she said, but in recent years the property was the setting for many parties and weddings booked through the nonprofit Evermay Society.

The neighbors, however, were not all enthusiastic about the party traffic, and some agents think their complaints might have spurred the listing. Owner Harry Belin and the Evermay Society had applied for a zoning exception to continue and expand the activities.

After extensive hearings by the local advisory neighborhood commission and postponements of action by the D.C. zoning board, Belin wrote an open letter to the community this summer, saying he would shut the gates. "The tragic fact is that, given what will now be at least one year of lost revenue opportunities, the Evermay Society cannot continue in its present lockdown status, the financial burden is just too great," said the letter, which was printed in a recent issue of the Georgetowner.

Whether that prompted the listing isn't known. Belin's agents said they believe the family had simply reached a decision to sell.

"My guess is that he probably thought things were going to get too restrictive," said William Starrels, a local advisory neighborhood commissioner who said the commission had been trying to craft a compromise with Belin.

Whether the house can bring $49 million in this economic climate is another unknown. There was competition among brokerage firms to get the listing, so the asking price was probably set by some combination of value estimates and the owner's aspirations.

"It is really in a class by itself," said Suzanne Goldstein, a Long & Foster agent in Friendship Heights. "It's one of those 'what do you think the Empire State Building is worth?' questions."

The listing agents are optimistic: They say they already have "several people lined up" to see the house in about five days, after some repainting.

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