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When it comes to 'high-end' homes, Tampa Bay's still a minor league market

To tweak the old saying just a bit for modern times, one person's castle is another person's tool shed.

As detailed by Tampa Bay Times real estate reporter Drew Harwell, the 10 most expensive homes that sold in this metro market in 2012 ranged from a high of $6.2 million to a low of $3 million.

Big bucks? Well, yes. And no.

While the wealthiest folks in the country may be howling over a just-reached fiscal cliff deal that raises their taxes on income and limits their deductions, it seems unlikely to put much of a damper on the truly lavish real estate market.

Tampa Bay's "high end" is a relative term, inhabited by corporate executives, doctors, lawyers and sports figures who all purchased very nice and mostly waterfront homes last year but never even approached the $10 million mark.

Some might say that's a very good thing, that Tampa Bay remains affordable and hasn't become tainted by the billionaire glitz that has so price-inflated parts of Miami, Naples and Palm Beach — not to mention Manhattan, Aspen and most of coastal California.

The rise of ever-soaring high-end homes — let's call them mansions, palaces, estates, manors or villas — has proved a lasting trend that parallels the sharp increase of millionaires with more than $100 million and billionaires in this country and across the globe.

As tracked by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, in 2012 the wealthiest 100 people on the planet added $241 billion to their collective $1.9 trillion in wealth. That's good news for the highest-end real estate whose developers are probably hard pressed to keep up with the fancy abodes the richest folks these days can dream up to buy.

Consider the 2012 real estate ambitions of U.S. tech uber-billionaire Larry Ellison, who founded and runs software giant Oracle Corp. Last summer, Ellison added to his bevy of mansions in California (one is modeled on a 16th century Japanese emperor's residence) and Newport, R.I., by buying 98 percent of the 141-square-mile Hawaiian island of Lanai.

Tampa Bay should be considered an emerging market of super-villas.

In early 2012, the buyer of former NBA player Matt Geiger's sprawling Tarpon Springs home planned to expand it by 13,000 square feet to a cozy 45,000. Now Drs. Kiran and Pallavi Patel, philanthropists and business investors, are building a home in Carrollwood that will top 63,000 square feet.

By sheer price tag, though, properties elsewhere in Florida are in a league of their own. For $100 million — 16 times the price of Tampa Bay's biggest home sale last year — buyers of Casa Casuarina, the Miami Beach mansion that once belonged to fashion icon Gianni Versace, can get a 23,000-square-foot villa. It comes with a 54-foot-long pool lined with mosaic tiles and 24-karat gold, millions of dollars in Italian furniture and, as described by current owner Peter Loftin, its own boutique hotel with 10 suites, British-trained butlers and a restaurant that serves cocktails in Versace martini glasses.

Another Florida home marked down to a relative bargain is the 27,300-square-foot Palm Beach spec mansion with 17 bathrooms on South Ocean Boulevard (a.k.a. "Billionaire's Row") that was built in 2010 and priced at $84 million. The price has since dropped to a mere $74 million.

For those eager to add their own finishing touches, an Orlando-area couple, David and Jackie Siegel, made a splash by starting, but never finishing, a 90,000-square-foot home. Modestly dubbed Versailles, the house features 45-foot ceilings. If it's ever completed, it would be one of America's biggest homes, with nine kitchens, a bowling alley and a baseball diamond.

David Siegel is the billionaire founder of timeshare giant Westgate Resorts whose palatial ambitions were derailed by the recession. His wife, Jackie, has turned all the publicity over the unfinished mansion into a garish riches-to-rags story chronicled in a documentary called The Queen of Versailles.

This could be the real estate quote of the year: "We didn't start out having a 90,000-square-foot house," David Siegel told the Good Morning America TV show. "It was more like a 'normal' 60,000-square-foot house."

Oh yeah, Versailles, only 60 percent finished, was priced last year at $65 million.

There are some lessons in all this remarkable excess.

First, those top 10 Tampa Bay real estate deals in 2012 suddenly look like pretty good values for the fine homes acquired.

Second, we're probably in the early innings of a new round of uber-luxury housing in this country — including Tampa Bay.

And third, never underestimate the extravagant ambitions of the highest-end real estate developers to try to tantalize the wallets and egos of the extremely wealthy.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

When it comes to 'high-end' homes, Tampa Bay's still a minor league market 01/05/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 5, 2013 3:31am]
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