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Living large; Despite the shaky economy, Western New York is seeing a vibrant market for luxury homes

Western New York's housing market is much like its economy and its people: steady and modest. Perhaps that's why newly built luxury homes with price tags over $500,000 are sometimes snidely referred to as "McMansions," "Hummer Homes" or "Garage Mahals."

But in this largely blue-collar community, the market for these modern mansions is fairly vibrant.

"There are a lot of new neighborhoods popping up all over," said Stacey Spokane, director of sales for Cheektowaga-based builder Forbes Capretto.

So what are the homes like? And who is buying them?

"We're just like everybody else," said George Rooks, a medical equipment sales representative who lives in Spaulding Lake in Clarence, a neighborhood dotted with $1 million-plus homes. "God has done good by us. My wife and I are college educated and we've worked really hard to get where we are."

Rooks' home is on the market for $976,900. His career brought him to Western New York and now he's moving his wife and family back to his native New Jersey.

When he first came to the Buffalo market, he was happy to find that -- though his mortgage stayed the same -- he could get roughly an additional 2,000 square feet, higher-quality construction and finer amenities here.

The additional space gives his four children room to play and he liked that Spaulding Lake had preserved a lot trees and foliage when it was developed.

"We like to spend a lot of time at home," Rooks said. "We travel quite a bit, so when we're home we like to relax, stay home and enjoy the neighborhood."

Realtors who sell the giant homes said young families make up the majority of their clients.

"You see a lot of younger families -- a lot of people coming back to the area where their parents are, to raise their families where there's a better quality of life," said Bonnie Clement, a broker with Hunt Real Estate.

The homes are tucked into stately housing developments with names like Strickler Estates and Spaulding Green. Clarence and Orchard Park are known for their outsized homes, but Lancaster, Amherst and Williamsville have their fair share, too, while Buffalo boasts original mansions. Right now, there are 168 luxury homes for sale in Erie and Niagara counties, ranging in price from $510,000 in Amherst to $2.39 million in Wales. As of August, 16 of them had a price tag of $1 million or more.

Local owners are not opulent superstars like Madonna or Beyonce. And their wealth is generally not ostentatious.

Many buyers are physicians working on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus through the University at Buffalo and Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Brokers also see many salespeople, attorneys, professional athletes, corporate executives, financial planners and bankers. Many are upgrading from smaller homes.

Also common among mansion shoppers are buyers relocating to Buffalo from outside the area. Many of those sales are facilitated by relocation companies hired by employers.

New Jersey-based Weichert relocation services has handled 25 moves into or out of the Buffalo region since January, working with local realty firms to market homes for sellers and help "sell" the community to potential buyers. In addition to the traditional MLS listings, luxury homes have their own websites, catalogs and marketing tools.

Having upscale housing stock to choose from is critical for relocation companies, especially as they work with employees who are more reluctant to relocate than ever.

"Most people relocating expect to live in something equivalent to or better than what they had at the old location," said Betsy Roche, vice president of broker network services for Weichert. "If they're going to uproot their families and go to the trouble of relocating, they figure they should at least end up with something better."

Often, people relocating here come from a market with a much higher cost of living. They're stunned to see the kind of home their dollar will afford them.

Though buyers can afford more house for their money in the Buffalo Niagara market than elsewhere, the taxes here eat into some of their housing budget. It's not uncommon for a luxury home to carry $18,000 in annual taxes here.

"When they see what they can get for a million dollars here compared to someplace else, they're thrilled," said Alice Miranda, president of the Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors. "[But] when you first tell them what the taxes are, it's always, 'Are you kidding me?' "

Maintenance requires a hefty budget, too. Landscaping alone can be a full-time job at some estates. And in addition to their grand designs, the cost of materials has gone up, contributing to their high price tags.

"Bricks, mortar, windows, doors -- everything," said Spokane.

But it's the price of land that has really soared.

"The price of land has gone up dramatically," said Clement. "Look at Amherst, where a lot was $36,000. Now it's $125,000 minimum. That brings the price up right off the bat."

A lot in Clarence starts at twice the cost of a lot in Lancaster. In fact, more builders are building outside of developments, in existing neighborhoods, or even tearing down old houses to make room for new ones -- especially as buyers begin to request more acreage.

When it comes time to sell, how easy is it to unload such pricey homes?

"[It takes] a long time," said Miranda. "But even in this market it's not as bad as the rest of the country."

Since January, 64 homes in the $500,000 to $1.45 million price range have sold. An average-price home often sells within three months, but luxury homes tend to take closer to six months or more. Still, one $1.2 million property lasted just 26 days on the market. Another, in Clarence's Waterford Estates, sold for the same price after just two months.

>What's inside?

The region's priciest houses are certainly larger than your everyday starter home. But today's homeowners are choosing to put more of their housing budgets toward the amenities within the home, rather than staking it all on enormous square footage.

A new trend toward open-floor-plan ranch homes and homes with a master bedroom on the first floor call for larger (and more expensive) foundations and roofs, so their relatively smaller size can be misleading. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find a luxury home under 3,000 square feet, with many sprawling beyond 7,000 and 8,000 square feet.

Inside, there is an abundance of crown molding, hardwood floors, decorative glass tile, stately columns and stone or slate fireplaces. Elaborate media rooms, libraries, master baths and three-car garages are the norm.

"When you're talking 7,000 square feet, you've got a lot of room to work with," said Miranda.

Outside on large lots are in-ground swimming pools, 10-foot pine trees brought in for privacy and stamped concrete patios. For the exterior, a mixture of shake siding and stone is popular, as are craftsman-style windows.

Staircases as a focal point are out of vogue. Instead, builders are doing U-shaped staircases off to the side of the foyer. A newly in-demand feature is a large mudroom with built-in cubbies for family members to store jackets, shoes and backpacks. Also big are walk-out basements -- finished basements with full exterior access through egress doors and windows.

"You could live in these basements, they're so beautiful," Miranda said.

Though Western New York is more commonly the domain of the $130,000 mortgage, its luxury home market is surprisingly healthy. That's a good thing for everyone, according to Tom Murdock, senior director of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.

Having upscale housing stock makes it possible for employers here to attract the top talent in any given industry. If you're trying to recruit the best doctors and researchers to our universities and hospitals, you'd better have a suitable place for them to live.

"It's very important," said Murdock. "Having a lot of affordable housing is a key component when recruiting companies to locate here. But at the same time, you want people in all levels of the company to find a spot where they would want to live."

email: schristmann@buffnews.com

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By the numbers /Buffalo Niagara's homes above $500,000

168 on the market

$18,000 average real estate tax bill

60 sold since January

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