A foreclosure auction for the super-rich
The bargain hunters jockey gingerly for a spot to park their luxury sedans and SUVs along Brewster Drive, a winding road in the hills of Tarzana.

It's a woodsy neighborhood of large homes behind wrought-iron gates, and more than two dozen shoppers are here to bid for a piece of it.

Housing auctions are plentiful these days, including builders' closeouts that lure hundreds of bidders to hotel ballrooms and public sales of foreclosures on the courthouse steps. But this time the steel-nerved speed-talkers at Kennedy Wilson Auction Group are unloading a palatial 13,500-square-foot bank-owned spec home that had been listed for $9.775 million just a year earlier.

"A one-off," says Andrew Levant of the Beverly Hills auction house, meaning just that single property is on the block. The minimum bid at the noon event: $2.1 million for the seven-bedroom, 11-bathroom property.

"The typical auction we do -- whether for a lender, developer or investors -- is 20 to 60 units in a condo or patio homes project, not necessarily multimillion-dollar homes," says Levant, who estimates that the cost to build the three-level Tuscan-style villa topped $7.5 million.

With a four-week marketing campaign and a budget of $25,000, Levant conducted eight open houses, plus some private showings, leading up to the auction on a recent Saturday. He says more than 250 people viewed the property, dubbed the Brewster Estate.

"There apparently are still lots of people interested in purchasing mansion-size homes," says Levant, the firm's senior managing director of business development. "They just don't want to spend $10 million to $20 million for the privilege."

More than an hour before auction time, the 29 registered participants begin signing in. They bring family, friends and real estate agents. They carry the requisite $25,000 cashier's checks. A uniformed security guard keeps a low profile in the background.

Each bidder gets a large yellow card with a number. Every entrant is outfitted with a blue wristband that looks more like a remnant from a hospital stay than an appropriate accessory for the crowd's winter version of California casual. The only hint of their shrouded wealth is a fur-collared jacket here and a heavy ring there.

After passing a bubbling fountain in the entry courtyard, through the tall arched double French doors and into the foyer with its hand-painted ceiling, many of the attendees roam the house.

On the ground level they tour the kitchen with its two Sub-Zero refrigerators, two pantries, single and double sinks and two dishwashers. Downstairs, they view the home theater, wine cellar with tasting room and fitness center. Upstairs, they examine the master suite with its wet bar and a glass-enclosed steam shower large enough to hold six adults. Outside, they stroll the nearly 1 1/2 -acre grounds, taking in the tennis court, a koi pond with a waterfall and expansive views.

Some position themselves in the great room, which has a 36-foot ceiling open to the second floor and is topped by leaded-glass skylights. One extended family settles into the kitchen's circular breakfast area and chats around the large table.

The affair is catered, with strawberries, cookies, assorted appetizers and coffee in cardboard cups. Rented furniture, rugs and knickknacks have been brought in.

The home was about 95% completed before it went into foreclosure, according to Steven Miller, a general contractor hired to prepare the property for sale. On hand for the big event, he estimates that a buyer would need to spend about $300,000 to finish the work, including the permitted infinity pool with spa and an unfinished underground room plumbed for a pool bathroom.

Miller enumerates the home's quality details: $250,000 worth of travertine floors, fine workmanship on the plaster arches leading from one room to the next, solid walnut floors, 38 French doors and five fireplaces. There's even an elevator and a 16-car subterranean parking garage.

Ten minutes before noon, the tension mounts. One participant speaks urgently on a cellphone to an absent client, demanding, "Where are you now?" Another discusses power of attorney with on-site personnel. The family in the kitchen grows restless.

Then the voice of auctioneer Dean Cullum breaks through the polyglot hubbub announcing that the auction will start at 12:05.

He and Rhett Winchell, president of Kennedy Wilson Auction Group, wait by the oversized fireplace in the great room as the bulk of the attendees gather on the first level. The family of Bidder 783 has staked out the couch and chairs along the back wall. Bidder 199 edges near a column and murmurs to her real estate agent in French. Half a dozen others with yellow bid cards arrange themselves on the second-floor overlook as if watching a play unfold.

Once again, Cullum's megaphone-like voice cuts through the room. "We will start in two minutes," he says. "We have one last-minute registration."