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It's Lonely at the Top

There is stasis at San Rafael's high end.

The two-year housing slide has been successful in one clear way: it has positioned San Rafael as an affordable option for homebuyers with Marin County dreams. With a citywide median of around $650,000 (less than $400 per square foot), Marin’s County Seat is a foot in the door – despite appearing on one 2010 “most expensive areas to live” list.

San Rafael is also Marin County’s largest city, edging out Novato by approximately 7,000 residents. One-fifth of all Marin residents live in San Rafael, enough so that the city can’t be dismissed as “entry-level” with a wave of a manicured hand. With a housing market healthy enough to support 148 active and pending single-family listings (as of February 14), San Rafeal has available single-family housing at every price point between $269,000 and $5.995 million.

Even with such a diverse inventory, San Rafael couldn’t even sniff the top ten sales in Marin County for 2010. The local high end does exist, but it’s San Rafael’s exception, not its norm.

The most expensive home sold in Marin County in 2010 was at 1 Upper Road, in Ross. Listed at $17.5 million, it closed escrow at $14 million, over $2 million more than 67 Belvedere Road, in Belvedere, which sold for $11.75 million. According to SF|North, a real estate blog hosted by a group of Alain Pinel agents in Corte Madera, those were the only two Marin County homes to sell for eight figures in 2010. The rest of the top ten divided itself between Ross, Belvedere, Sausalito and Tiburon, which had expensive homes number four, six, seven, nine and ten on the list. For the year, 61 homes sold for more than $3 million, up from 2009’s total of 50.

Nowhere on this list do we see San Rafael.

Granted, nor do we see Kentfield, Mill Valley, Larkspur or San Anselmo, all cities with more real estate cache than San Rafeal. Those towns, especially the first two, usually carry a sizable inventory of $2 million-and-up homes, however. San Rafael’s high end -- by Marin standards – almost doesn’t exist.

Homes that could potentially edge into next year’s most expensive homes lists seem out of place on the San Rafael Multiple Listing Service, and what few there are seem to spend a mind-numblingly long period of time on the market. Consider, for example, the city’s two most expensive presently active listings: 542 Biscayne Drive, a 4,560 square-foot home built in 1989 and recently remodeled, features a backyard pool that looks like its design was lifted directly from William Randolph Hearst’s castle. It has everything – a four-room cabana, a wine cellar, his and hers walk-in closets, a lot measuring 0.68 of an acre. All it lacks is a buyer. Despite the work of Lynda Sarkissian and Bill Bullock, two of Marin County’s most successful and respected realtors, 542 Biscayne Drive has been on the market one month short of a year. Originally listed at $4.85 million, it was reduced to $4.475 million last April; still, no takers.

Likewise for 315 Summit Avenue, the Rosegarden Estate, built in 1929; an almost-8,000 square-foot Georgian mansion with a 1.47-acre lot, the home was the site of the 2010 Marin Designer Showcase last spring. Almost 300 days later, it’s still on the market, despite a $1 million price reduction in May. The home, listed by David Schwartz of Coldwell Banker, is now listed at $5.995 million.

Even at these Monopoly money-ish prices, these homes are good deals. Put them in Ross or Tiburon and they’d cost at least half again as much. In San Rafael, where 82 percent of active and pending single-family listings are priced under $1 million and they’re pariahs at $850 per square foot.

That’s San Rafael, and in today’s market, that’s good news. The under-$1 million club is driving the market, thanks to federal and state programs to encourage home ownership. It’s also great news for affluent buyers who don’t need the validation of a Tiburon address. For them, San Rafael’s high end is a bargain.

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