Over the past century, Southern California has seen its rich, rugged landscape crammed with homes wherever they fit.
Homes cling to the sides of canyons with cantilevered pools suspended in mid-air. Bungalows squeeze the beaches just inches from their neighbors. ADUs pop up in forecourts and backyards, are built on site or dropped by cranes.
So why do some of the area’s best real estate — oceanfront lots on Malibu’s best beaches, acres on mountain tops overlooking the city — remain completely vacant?
Spoiler alert: it’s not because their owners are interested in the sanctity of the undeveloped land and the preservation of California’s hills and beaches by leaving them pristine.
As is common in the luxury real estate scene, it’s the whims of the rich where the answer can be both extremely complicated and stunningly simple: a mixture of greed, excess, a desire for privacy, and sometimes just doing better than worrying build a colossal house.
There are still lots of vacancies in Southern California. According to Redfin, there are 3,497 residential lots currently on the market in LA County, and their values vary widely by location.
For example, a half-acre lot is currently for sale in Lancaster for $3,000. Over in Bel-Air, 650 acres is listed for a cool $60 million. but the price differences are not always so widespread geographically; In Malibu, one piece of land costs $50,000 while another asks for $35 million.
In 2017, Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio left neighbors scratching their heads when he spent $6.6 million on one of the last vacant lots on Malibu’s Broad Beach, an ultra-exclusive sandy beach that Pierce Brosnan, Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon had owned houses. But instead of building on it, he left it empty.
That’s because he already owned the house next door. Rather than deal with a potentially annoying neighbor and the din of building a new property right next to his, he decided to simply buy the property for some peace and quiet, according to veteran real estate agent Jack Pritchett, who ran the listing on the property a year earlier.
“In Southern California, wealth can be measured in privacy, not money,” he said. “That proves it.”
In the 1960s, Pritchett sold a Malibu beach house to actor Steve McQueen, who valued privacy so much that he bought lots on either side of the property to ensure that no one would build near him.
Because Broad Beach is such a desirable enclave, much of its shoreline is crowded with homes. Attanasio is leaving his land empty to give himself some breathing space, but the property’s previous owner had another reason: he just couldn’t get around to it.
It was owned for decades by a doctor who planned to build a home on the property, but the longer he waited, the more construction and foundation requirements there were, according to Pritchett of the California Coastal Commission. Ultimately, it seemed easier to pass the headache on to someone else.
Pritchett provided some other examples of why Malibu landowners have kept their prized lots vacant.
He knew a family that owned property in a gated community on the bluffs overlooking the beach. The husband wanted to build a house there, but the wife didn’t, so they left it empty for decades – instead using it as a parking lot when they went to the sea.
Pritchett recently sold the vacant property on behalf of the family for just over $1 million. Not bad for a parking lot.
In the 1980s, Pritchett’s father assembled a development group attempting to build a condominium complex near Matador Beach. Given that Malibu doesn’t have a sewage system, the neighbors protested, not wanting a condo-sized septic tank to stink the area, and the group eventually gave up. The country remains empty today.
Across Broad Beach, a one-acre property sold for $11 million in 2020, making it one of the most expensive land transactions in Malibu in the past decade. Compass agent Chris Cortazzo said the seller had a huge collection of vacant land; The prized waterfront property was just one part of a much larger collection and the owner simply never felt the need to build there.
It probably won’t stay empty for long; It was sold with plans and permits to build two houses on the double plot.
“Country is king. They’re not building any more of it,” said Scott Tamkin, who currently holds the listing on a stunning 264-acre property in Bel-Air that accounts for 6% of the neighborhood’s total land area. It’s available for $60 million.
“There are a number of high net worth individuals who are happy to acquire land and sit on it until they decide to do something with it or sell it,” he said.
In this case, the owner never decided on anything, but potential buyers have many ideas ranging from a goat farm, a senior citizens’ community, or an outdoor campus for a private school. The property spanning the gorge includes 15 to 20 acres of flat land at the top, and Tamkin said up to 17 homes can be built there.
“I get calls about it every week. Everyone has their own great idea,” he said.
Every few years a package comes along so big it’s a shock it’s still empty, especially in an area as populous as LA County, which has about 9.8 million residents — about 3% of the entire US population.
The most extreme example emerged in 2018, when a 157-acre lot at the highest point of Beverly Crest listed for $1 billion, easily the highest price in California housing history.
Many tried and failed to build something on what was touted as the finest undeveloped land in Southern California.
An Iranian princess wanted to build a palace there. Didn’t happen. A talk show host imagined a mega mansion made of marble. Never built. After a troubled saga auctioned off the land behind a Pomona courthouse to the estate of late Herbalife founder Mark Hughes in 2019, the land remains vacant.
Another reason why properties stand empty: who has the time?
“The really prime land tends to be bought by wealthy buyers,” said Hilton & Hyland agent Barry Watts, pointing to tech moguls like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen or former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as recent examples.
Allen owned a 300-acre property on a ridge above Beverly Crest that he never developed, which was recently sold to Schmidt for $65 million.
“They have other things on their minds in life,” Watts said.
He added that wealthy people are often short on time, so they don’t have the hours and energy needed to work with architects, consultants, contractors and city officials to develop the estate of their dreams. These types of buyers can afford to purchase land as an investment, but they also have homes scattered across the country that serve them well in the meantime.
Building a prime estate on prime land takes a long time – sometimes decades. Watts and fellow agent David Kramer are currently listing a cluster of properties in Bel-Air that are 20 years in the making.
It was owned for years by Steve Bing, the film producer and philanthropist who committed suicide in 2020. Bing spent nine years at the Hotel Bel-Air and fell in love with the area so much that he began buying up all the land across the street over the course of a decade.
Bing eventually lost control of the country, and it was slowly split into three and launched. The largest is listed for $47 million, the medium is $33 million, and the smallest sold for $25 million earlier this year.
“The buyer plans to build a 25,000-square-foot mansion on the property,” Watts said. “When it’s done, it’s going to be a $100 million estate — which it needs to be when you’re spending that much money on the land.”
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-26/why-are-some-of-southern-californias-finest-properties-left-empty Why are some of Southern California’s finest properties empty?