ATLANTA — Billy and Audrey Martin just built their dream house. And it's no cookie-cutter. This 9,000-square-foot country Victorian near Atlanta boasts eggshell-white columns and a wraparound front porch.
Inside, a neck-craning two-story fireplace graces the family room and several curving staircases wind up to the second level and observation deck. In back, water tumbles into stone pools, and a Mexican-tiled spa beckons.
"We got out of [business] as early as we could so we could live life as we liked," Mr. Martin says.
They're not alone in their upscale tastes. From Atlanta to California, palatial homes are one of the hottest slices of the real estate market. The wealthiest Americans are riding stock-market highs into their most-expensive homes yet.
"1995 and 1996 have been phenomenal years for the luxury home market," says Bob White, president of Venture Homes in Atlanta.
"It's the economic cycle. Corporate earnings have been up, business has been good, interest rates low, and people are confident in the future."
In palm-studded Delray Beach, Fla., realtor Louise Klein Kenith just sold the most-expensive house of her 10-year career. The home, complete with maid's room, terraced gardens, and a pool, went for $5 million. "Builders are putting up spec houses in the $10 million to $12 million range with full confidence they'll sell," says Ms. Kenith of Luxury Homes Century 21 in Boca Raton, Fla. "People are coming with vast sums of expendable cash."
"Most of our buyers are not retired people, but doctors, lawyers, florist-shop owners, families who've done well in their businesses," says Charley Hannah, vice president of Hannah Bartoletta Homes in Tampa, Fla.
In pockets of southern California, where house prices plunged during the recession of the early '90s, sales of new homes in the million-dollar category have been brisk. Resale homes are going for $50,000 above the asking price in just a few days.
Analysts say pent-up demand and a perception that the real estate market has hit bottom are driving the upsurge.
But the boom isn't as dramatic as the late 1980s, says Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C. The percentage of homes being built with 2.5 or more baths - an upscale benchmark - jumped from 29 percent in 1985 to 45 percent in 1990. From 1992 to 1995, the figure remained stagnant, but in the last two years it's ticked up to 50 percent.
But demand is likely to increase over the next few years as aging baby boomers trade up their homes.
Technology may also play a role. "Media rooms, video discs, and other new gadgets may encourage people to think their homes are obsolete ... and get them excited to buy big houses," Mr. Carliner says.
But in a twist befitting the family-friendly 1990s, today's builders and buyers are looking for a different product than during the late '80s.
"You're not seeing any less money spent, but today the focus is on quality, not quantity," says Bill Harrison of Harrison Design Associates, an architecture firm in Atlanta.
Take the Martins, whose home Mr. Harrison designed. They spent money on heart-pine floors, mahogany bookcases, marble countertops, and stone fireplaces. They spared no expense for the dogs, who have their own small heated and air-conditioned dog room off the kitchen and can enter by their own door. Outside, a herd of cows - Mr. Martin's new hobby - ambles around the 40-acre estate.
"We spent a lot of time figuring out the details we wanted to live with and enjoy," says Mrs. Martin, who describes herself as an old-fashioned country person. She picked the blue-check wallpaper that covers part of the kitchen walls.
The Martins, who lived in a smaller Atlanta home for many years, decided it was time to build their dream home now that Mr. Martin, a business owner, is almost retired. After designing and building all this, the couple plans to stay. "We're not doing this again," Mrs. Martin says with utter conviction.
Kenith, the Boca Raton realtor, says the Massachusetts couple that bought the $5 million home selected it because it wasn't ostentatious. "They were looking for something that would accommodate their children and grandchildren when they visit," Kenith says. "The lady loves to bake cookies for her grandchildren, and the kitchen is magnificent."
POPULAR LUXURY HOME ITEMS
Pool and Cabana
Price: From $50,000 to $100,000 plus, depending on materials used.
For $50,000 clients can get a 30-by-40-foot pool with a small stucco or wood cabana that includes kitchenette, bathroom, and grills. A brick or stone cabana with similar features, a game room, and a pool with waterfalls cost more than $100,000.
Price: From $50,000 to $250,000.
Besides a three-car garage attached to the house, many clients want a detached three- or four-car garage to store sports cars or other collectibles. The high-end price might include an all-stone building with elaborate details and a living space above for a caretaker.
Movie theaters/Media Rooms
Price: $10,000 for several theater seats, surround sound, and a 40-inch television. $50,000 and more for everything but the popcorn - a wall-length screen, several rows of seats, and a high-end stereo system.
Price: $20,000 for basic system. More than $150,000 for a system that allows homeowners to control security, heating, air, and lights by computer.