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How Aspen's Rich Homeowners Get Bigger

Aspen, Colorado is a special place. And you need a lot of money to live here. There are 88 homes listed on the market for $20 million or more. Those are just the ones officially listed. But even here, the economic slowdown is starting to affect prices. They’re falling, by one estimate 5 percent, helped, in part, by foreign lookie-loos coming in to take advantage of the cheap dollar.

But price is almost secondary now to size. During the ‘90s, there was a McMansion boom in this town. One home is 55,000 square feet! (Prince Bandar’s, and he’s been trying to sell it forever—for $135 million). The county grew concerned and began limiting the size of new homes. The size limit keeps coming down, and currently, no new home can be built bigger than 5,750 square feet, including the basement and garage.

As long-time realtor Rich Wagar told me, “For the majority of my clientele, people who fly in private planes, I mean 5,750 is a caretaker unit, it’s not big enough for a house.”

At the same time, the county wanted to set aside more open space. So it came up with a unique, free market idea: Transferable Development Rights, or TDR’s. It allows some property owners—those, for example, who own land near forests—to sell some of their development rights to others, who use those rights to make houses larger than the 5,750 limit. One TDR equals an extra 2,500 square feet extra you can add to your house. TDR’s have tripled in value in the last few years and are now running over $300,000 apiece. That’s just for the RIGHT to add square footage.

Homeowner Daryl Snadon bought two TDR’s so he could add 5,000 square feet to the house he built (You should see this house—wow! A total now of 25,000 square feet, built in large part with recycled wood—one of the best parts of this job is checking out really nice houses). Snadon has another piece of property for which he has bought four TDR’s.

He’s not sure he needs all four, but as the county keeps bringing down the limits to square footage, TDR’s are a commodity worth having. Even if you don’t use them, you can resell them. “You really don’t know how many there are, you don’t know how many have been created,” Snadon said.

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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