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Attention Home Buyers: Mansions on the Cheap

There's an indoor lap pool, eight-car garage and four-story elevator. But the 26,000-sq ft, Tuscan-style home features something even more unusual in this ritzy suburb of gated estates and mansions -- a $3 million discount on its price.

As the credit crisis started to shake global financial markets in August, the owners of the 22-acre estate at 309 Taconic Road in Greenwich, Connecticut, cut their price to $19 million, showing turbulence in the U.S. housing market penetrating the wealthiest strata of American society.

Spanish-style Villa
Spanish-style Villa

"People are looking instead of buying, maybe since the second week of August," said Julianne Ward, director of fine homes at broker Prudential in Greenwich, a coastal town of 61,000 about 30 miles from New York City.

Until recently, the nation's most extravagant homes had defied the two-year slide in prices and surge in foreclosures roiling the broader property market, where existing home sales are down more than 20 percent from a 2005 peak, according to industry data.

Ultimate Homes, a publication that ranks the nation's 1,000 priciest homes, began its survey in 2005 with the cheapest on the list at $7.9 million. That jumped to $10 million this year with a record six homes now selling for $100 million or more.

"In the last couple of years the most expensive home on the market has gone from $75 million to $165 million," said Rick Goodwin, the magazine's publisher. "This market is still very strong. The rich are doing very well."

The nation's wealthiest communities were largely unscathed by turmoil in the broader housing market through the second quarter of this year, according DataQuick, which analyzes data on real-estate markets nationally.

In California, for example, the number of homes that sold for $10 million or more rose nearly 40 percent between the first quarter and second quarter, while the number in New York grew 15 percent and Connecticut's more than doubled, according to public records examined by DataQuick.

DataQuick mines records where a price or loan amount is available, which means there can be some gaps, but the numbers are a reliable indicator of trends, said DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage who compiled the data for Reuters.

"Certainly through mid-summer it appears to be holding up just fine, and faring better than most other segments of the market," he said of homes selling at $10 million or more.

Credit Crunch Stirs Caution

Like the Bel Air section of Los Angeles and many other exclusive coastal communities, Greenwich has a long association with wealth. Its typical family earns more than $120,000 -- more than double the national average, while its investment bankers are among the country's highest paid, taking home on average $23,846 a week -- 28 times the national average, according a recent government survey.

But the global credit crunch is stirring caution among its newest crop of wealthly elite. Greenwich is the unofficial capital of the U.S. hedge fund boom. More than 100 of the private investment pools for the wealthy have set up in the town. That worries economist Edward Deak at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

"The hedge funds, private equity firms are taking a hit," he said.

"I'm concerned about what the mortgage meltdown is going to mean for bonus incomes coming into Connecticut in January '08 and also January of '09."

Divergent Home Trends

Some developers are changing course, or delaying the start of sales or construction.

"Buyers are doing a lot more due diligence and not pulling the trigger as quickly," said Ward, who has sold real estate in the town for more than two decades, as she steered her silver Land Rover past one of several walled compounds for sale.

A vivid illustration of the divergent housing trends of the last two years is on display about an hour-and-a-half drive from Greenwich on Avon Mountain in West Hartford, Connecticut, where local businessman Arnold Chase is building a new home. His 53,000-sq ft estate, complete with 100-seat cinema, would be New England's largest private home, eclipsing even the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, that typified the gilded age of America's industrial revolution.

"At the highest end, there's been no slowdown at all," said Joseph Beninati, partner and co-founder of Antares Investment Partners, a private-equity and development firm that caters to Greenwich's hedge funds.

According to town records in Greenwich cited by Antares, the number of closed transactions on homes sold at prices greater than $8 million grew 50 percent in 2006, a record.

Beninati said he expects that figure to rise again this year.

Last month, Antares sold its 15,000 square foot Two Fountains Estate for about $11 million. Beninati said. Antares is now mediating a bidding war on another estate, Stone Chase -- a 17,800 square foot home with a 10,000-bottle wine cellar priced in the $10 million range.

"The luxury market tends to be a little isolated from the market swings. This time around it's a little different because the bottom half of the upper tier is softening a bit," said Laurie Moore-Moore, founder of the Institute for Luxury Home Marketing, a trade body for high-end property brokers.

The bottom tier is comprised of homes that sell for $2 million or less, she said. "As the market softens I think we are seeing that segment of the market falling out," she said.

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.