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When the world’s wealthiest buyers seek to plump up their property portfolios with a US-based acquisition, a penthouse in one of the new designer skyscrapers in New York or Miami would be the obvious first choice. But to find some of the country’s most prestigious and highly priced properties, the place to look is the great American wilderness.
Ranches are “the next trophy property that will start trending”, says Royce Pinkwater, former senior vice-president of Sotheby’s International Realty and founder of Pinkwater Select, who specialises in portfolio-building for whom she describes as the “stratospherically rich”.
Ranches can give billionaires and celebrities just the sort of space and seclusion they covet. Often set in hundreds of private acres, they offer scope for every sporting activity imaginable, a place to land a private jet or helicopter, and plenty of room to accommodate family and friends.
“They offer a fairyland lifestyle. I’m seeing foreign buyers asking for golf courses and boating lakes. Ranches also provide a sense of one’s own private fiefdom, which appeals to the mentality of the sort of people who can afford it and want to control the world around them,” says Pinkwater. Her former colleagues at Sotheby’s recently achieved a sale price of $10.85m for a 26-acre ranch in Santa Barbara owned by television host Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, Portia de Rossi.
“Ranches are the world’s great under-the-radar property buy,” says Pinkwater. “Traditionally, very wealthy Americans have bought ranches – financial titans who want properties that literally span states. But I have been anticipating the emergence of Russians, Chinese and other global wealth in this market for the last two or three years and it’s just starting to happen.”
One opportunity that might be of interest to such buyers is Rana Creek Ranch, a 14,000-acre working cattle farm set not in a remote location, as is the norm, but on the fringes of the Californian town of Carmel. Pinkwater Select is marketing it for $59m.
Enquiries from Russian and Chinese buyers are up 70 per cent over the past two years, according to Pinkwater. “These markets are now looking at the US more seriously than before, and Koreans, in particular, are entering the ranch market now.”
Ranches come in two varieties: the working ranch, for which there are specialist brokers; and trophy ranches, with private fishing, horse-riding potential, great views and proximity to a prestigious town or resort. Tuscan vineyard estates or South African game reserves may loosely be called ranches but, in its truest sense, the ranch is all-American.
It does not get more stereotypically American than Grand River Ranch in Kremmling, Colorado, where, besides the five-bedroom main house, the owner has built a replica wild west town complete with a general store, saloon, barbers and even a jail. The 19,000-acre gated estate is on sale with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty for $23m.
Meanwhile, near Stephenville, Texas, which is billed as “the cowboy capital of the world”, restaurateurs Andy and Doogie Wilson are selling their 21-acre Puluxy River Estate for $975,000. “Texas has always been associated with ranching and the American west and this area is typified by rolling hills, deciduous forests and arguably the world’s most breathtaking sunsets. A Texas ranch also has the benefit of a climate that allows you to enjoy the outdoors all year round,” says Wilson.
Texas agency Briggs Freeman – part of Sotheby’s Realty and based in Dallas – reports that its ranch and land division has sold more than $31.5m worth of properties across the state so far this year, a 179 per cent increase over the same period last year.
In Aspen, Colorado, Ed Zasacky, an agent for Aspen Snowmass, has his own idea about what makes ranch life so appealing. “Big views and ‘shoot off dynamite in your front yard’ privacy,” he says – and he knows just the place. Flying Dog Ranch in Woody Creek, one of Aspen’s last original ranches with 245 un-subdivided acres, was the regular hang-out of the late journalist and author Hunter S Thompson, who would join the current owner, George Stranahan, in letting off steam over beers and guns.
The ranch, which is on sale for $34.9m (Stranahan is retiring from ranching) has the original 1800s homestead and a log cabin-inspired main house, set in a vast, private, wilderness just 15 minutes’ drive from wealthy, cosmopolitan Aspen.
“Aspen is a popular place for a ranch, as there is a lot of music, art, ballet and great food and wine here, along with myriad sports opportunities such as world-class skiing and some of the best hunting and fishing in the west,” says Zasacky.
Prices in Aspen’s ranch market fell by 30 to 50 per cent during the recession, says Zasacky, but interest is now returning. “There hasn’t been an appetite for $100m-plus ranches lately, but there are certainly sales for up to $50m,” he says, citing Aspen Valley Ranch, a bank-owned 800-acre estate with 14 lot subdivisions (land that can be sold off separately) that recently sold for $27m despite being once marketed for $88m.
Billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson – a client of Zasacky’s – also benefited from the falling market, when he bought Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s Hala Ranch in Aspen for $49m last year. The Saudi prince originally marketed it in 2006 for $135m.
A ranch’s value is based first on location, second on the amount of land and third on the quality of the house, says Pinkwater – so ranch architecture still tends to be of the rustic, traditional variety that blends in with the natural surroundings. What owners do with their palatial interiors, however, knows no limits.
“Some ranches now have indoor aquatic centres or immense indoor arenas complete with a pub and viewing areas or indoor gyms rivalling health clubs,” says Zasacky.
In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Spackmans estate agency is marketing a ranch on 72 acres for $24.75m. As well as the 7,600 sq ft main house, there is a six-bedroom guest house and a 2,000 sq ft recreation house with a squash court, climbing wall and gym.
What you can buy for . . .
$1m: A 6,800 sq ft ranch on about 30 acres in Stephenville, Texas
$5m: A working ranch of about 30 acres with an ocean view in Carpinteria, California
$10m: A 45-acre riverfront ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado, with stables
$40m: A trophy ranch of more than 100 acres, west of Los Angeles