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Every city has a richest man, just as every city has a most expensive house. The two do not necessarily go together. With a fortune estimated at $47 billion, famed investor Warren Buffett is certainly the richest man in Omaha. His Omaha home, however, which he bought in 1958 for a reported $31,500, is far from the most expensive. That honor falls to a six-bedroom Mediterranean-style house in the city's exclusive Linden Estates section, which is currently on the market for $3.9 million.
Owning the most expensive house in town bestows a degree of bragging rights that few other things can. Like any other possession, it is a symbol of one's success. Of course, in some cities it's easier, or at least more affordable, than others. For example, the most expensive house in Manchester, N.H., which is the biggest city in the Granite State, is the 10-bedroom Gould Chandler Mansion built in 1896. And at $775,000, it's possible the price is something that even cost-conscious types like Buffett would appreciate.
What are the other most expensive houses in the nation's biggest cities? Businessweek.com searched local property listings in every state and spoke with dozens of real estate agents to find out. The design, price, and age of luxury properties on the market run the gamut—from a modern penthouse in Milwaukee, Wis., listed at $2.95 million to an historic, 49-acre farm in Louisville, Ky., for $6.87 million. (The cities of Little Rock, Ark., Jacksonville, Fla., Kansas City, Mo., and Columbia, S.C., were not included as the sellers did not want to participate.)
While the size and style of these houses range as broadly as the price, some factors are consistent. The most important supports the old cliché that real estate is all about "location, location, location." Each city has its "golden enclave," says Edward Mermelstein, an international real estate attorney with offices in New York and Moscow, whether it be an elite building or street—such as New York's Fifth Avenue—or an exclusive neighborhood or gated community, such as Los Angeles' Holmby Hills.
In fact, Holmby Hills is the site of the most expensive listing in L.A., which also happens to be the most expensive in the U.S. The former home of television producer Aaron Spelling—the man responsible for such hits as Charlie's Angels and Beverly Hills 90210—the 57,000-sq.-ft. château-style mansion reportedly contains an ice rink, a bowling alley, a floor of closets, and parking for 100 cars. The property, which is being sold by Spelling's widow, has been on the market since 2009.
In addition to location, other important factors for buyers with ultra-high net worths are quality of the construction and materials, number of rooms, garage space, acreage, and, increasingly, such amenities as media rooms, wine cellars, and the latest security systems.
Unique features are also important to buyers, says Joanna Dresser, an agent for LandVest. One of Dresser's listings in Boston is the 19th century Ames-Webster Mansion, priced at $23 million. Among many of its original details, it has a skylight designed by American artist John La Farge. "No one will buy that building and destroy the original details," she says. "That is what you are [paying for]."
Still, age is a factor. Some buyers view an older house as a positive, others a negative. Typically, unless an older home has been recently renovated, it often requires additional investment, such as new roofing, pipes, and wiring. Also, some buyers don't like the feeling that other people have lived under the same roof. They want it all new. There are other buyers who value a property because it had once belonged to a celebrity or historical figure, or had been designed by a famous architect, says Mermelstein.
Then again, who's to say you can't have both old and new? Some custom-built homes, such as the Gunnell Estate in Salt Lake City, aim to blend old-world architecture with modern amenities. For the serious buyer, this is a great time to buy, as prices remain well below the peak of the market. Since the start of the year, home buyers from New York to Denver have been taking advantage of significant price reductions as sellers try to lure interest. According to John Brian Losh, chief executive and publisher of Luxuryrealestate.com, there are excellent deals now, especially in Florida, Arizona, and Southern California. Still, some people may never be able to comprehend spending $150 million on a house, even if you can park 100 cars there.
Click here to see the most expensive houses in the biggest cities in the U.S.