Soap opera helps drive a real brand

Never has the relationship between prime real estate and prime-time television been as electrically fused as in the case of Orange County, the southern California setting for hit soaps and reality shows such as The OC and Laguna Beach.

Not so long ago, Orange County was perceived as a dull, predominantly white, conservative stronghold where husbands trimmed lawns and wives baked fat-free cakes in tidy but soulless master-planned communities, including City of Irvine, Coto de Caza, Anaheim Hills, Ladera Ranch and Mission Viejo. Most non-residents simply sped through, heading north to Los Angeles or south to San Diego, paying the district as little attention as they would the detergent commercials sandwiched between their favourite television shows.

Yet in real estate, as in show business, image is everything. And in 2003 along came The OC, a series that offered a look inside this flashy but flawed suburban California world through the eyes of a beautiful, predominantly teenage cast. It struck a cultural nerve, not just in the US but also around the world. Out went Orange County’s dowdy image; in came a new, more glamorous, reputation that has since developed into a fully fledged brand.

“In the last three years, the recognition of ‘the OC’ as an international destination is out there,” says Mark Feary, executive director of the county’s tourism council. “The shows have been syndicated around the world and The OC was the number one show in the key 18-25 demographic. That’s what made it hip.”

He notes that 10 times more people were exposed to the term “the OC” than ever saw the television shows, thanks to advertising and media coverage. When the cast and production crew were given the keys to the city of Newport Beach, near Laguna, in 2004, it was symbolic of what a hot property the show had made of the whole region.

Though The OC ended in February this year, a flood of similar programmes set in Orange County’s affluent suburbs followed. 2004 saw the launch on MTV of Laguna Beach, a reality show charting the lives of real teenagers living on its most spectacular and affluent stretch of coast. Then there’s Bravo TV’s reality show The Real Housewives of Orange County, which tracks the lives of five preposterously wealthy women living on the exclusive, guarded and gated Coto de Caza estate.

Viewers seem to be as interested in the shows’ backdrops of opulent, multi-million dollar houses – and in the case of Real Housewives its insights into high-end remodelling – as their characters and plot lines. And many, from Los Angeles and other parts of the US, are now moving to Orange County, intent upon securing their own piece of the set.

According to Remax, one of the biggest local real estate agencies, property values in the area rose by an average of 18.9 per cent per year between 2000 and 2005 and more in key neighbourhoods, pushing the median house price to $710,000 in 2006. This can’t be solely pegged to the influence of television; after all, there’s the California sunshine and a booming local economy led by computer, broadband, biotechnology and design companies in the Greater Irvine Spectrum Area. But The OC and ensuing shows managed to play up the area’s status as a place both to live and work just as effectively as they spotlighted its wealthy residents and high-end houses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most successful woman featured on Real Housewives is Jeana Keough, a Playboy-centrefold-turned-realtor, who now finds herself taking viewers on buying trips. “I think the TV shows have been really beneficial,” she says. “Not only are we no longer lumped in with Los Angeles, Orange County is perceived as being even more desirable than LA, which is full of traffic and has crowded living conditions.”

Keough, whose husband Matt is a former major league baseball player and whose daughter Kara, 16, recently got a new BMW because the window button on her Mercedes was broken, adds that those who move to Orange County rarely leave. “Most of my buyers and sellers at Coto de Caza are already living there” but want to trade up, she says. “My biggest listing right now is a 10,000 sq ft, $18.9m home with deluxe pool house and movie theatre.”

Stephen Thomas, president of Remax, notes that parts of Orange County, such as downtown Santa Ana, with its low income neighbourhoods, are a long way from the stuccoed mansions and glitzy malls seen on the shows. But he agrees that the area and the upper-middle-class lifestyle it offers now have more cachet thanks to its exposure on television. “The American dream is now a global dream and the impression that people have of Orange County is of a pampered lifestyle that fits in with their vision of grandeur,” he says. “People want to relocate to the area and many – especially those based at Irvine Spectrum – are highly paid professionals looking toward the California lifestyle.”

From 2001 to 2005 about 60,000 people migrated to the area each year, although that figure dropped to 30,000 in 2006, probably because of rising house prices. That brings the total population to about 3.8m and diversity seems to be on the rise. A recent survey of incoming buyers revealed that the most common name is Nguyen, which is Vietnamese, followed by Kim, Lee, Tran and Garcia.

Developers have done their best to respond to increasing demand but the county’s rolling hills – once strewn with sage-brush and orange groves – are now close to built out. The Irvine Company, the largest master-planner in the region, has room for only 4,000 more homes on its sprawling Irvine Ranch in East Orange. Its main competition, Rancho Mission Viejo, will build a further 8,000 homes at Ladera Ranch just south of the city of San Juan Capistrano.

“From now on it’s a case of needing to build upward,” says Phyllis Hart of the Urban Land Institute, Orange County. “For example, in the city of Anaheim the trend is for high-rises.”

For now though most communities still look like stage-set suburbs, architecturally neat with strict rules about hedge heights and exterior decor. Take Terramor, Rancho Mission Viejo’s “visionary village” at Ladera Ranch. The developer distinguishes its prospective inhabitants as “traditionals”, “moderns” and “cultural creatives” as if it was Disney setting up a casting call. Although the houses are of a very high standard and come in a variety of “Mediterranean” styles, with more baubles and bangles for the “moderns” and fewer for the “traditionals”, one can’t help but feel that the whole thing is rather, well, phoney. At Ladera Ranch the prices start at $550,000 rising to well over $3m. At Quail Hill, the Irvine Company’s village of 1,400 new “stately single-family homes”, they are $2m and up. And in Laguna Beach they are even higher, thanks in part to the MTV show, says Claude Gourdel of the local Prudential California Realty office.

“The TV show is really bad but the photography of the shows and especially the aerial photography showing the whole of the coast is quite unique,” he says. “The show is watched by kids but their parents see the coastline and want to know ‘Where is that?’ ”

Already popular with second home owners, Laguna Beach is now becoming a place where people live year-round, he adds. Most properties are contemporary or Tuscan in style and those on sites overlooking the ocean start at about $8m, with some going for tens of millions. They can also be let for significant sums. “I have an oceanfront property to rent for $39,000 a month right now,” Gourdal boasts. If the market has cooled in the past 12 months, as it has in much of the US, the effect has been mostly declining sales volume not falling prices.

Not all long-time residents of Orange County are happy about its new notoriety. “I did tune into the programme Real Housewives and, although I didn’t see it all the way through, frankly I was appalled,” says Larry Agran, the former mayor and now vice-mayor of the City of Irvine. “That this sickening, self-indulgent display of wealth was somehow supposed to be representative of something was completely laughable. For a start, there were no non-white people on the show. Anyone who lives in OC has to be aware that shows like these represent a tiny percentage of the population. In the case of Irvine we have a population that is 40 per cent Asian American, 10 per cent Hispanic, 2 per cent black and 15 per cent Middle Eastern.”

Others, such as Jack Eidt, director of planning for the environmental group Wild Heritage Planners, are worried about the effects of a rising population and increased development. Orange County currently has 39,000 acres of protected wilderness and boasts the largest inter-connected metropolitan open space reserve in the US, allowing visitors to hike from Laguna Beach, through Laguna Canyon into the Cleaveland Open Forest.

“Orange County is all about real estate,” Eidt laments. “The whole economy is based on that, which means the interests of developers threaten what remains of [the area’s] great parks and eco-system. With urbanisation and population densification ongoing, the pressure to convert the rolling coastal sage- scrub-covered foothills and oak woodlands into houses, mini-malls and toll roads continues to undermine our internationally coveted quality of life.”

He pauses. “Not that they’d ever make a TV show about that.”

The Irvine Company, tel: +1 949-720 3234;

Rancho Mission Viejo, tel: +1 949-240 3363;

Remax Real Estate Services, tel: +1 949-466 6772:

Prudential California Realty,
tel: +1 949-533 3387;

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