Monday, March 16, 2009
Wonder if the Dream Home Winners Can Afford it?
Florida couple wins Sonoma dream home
CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
By MEG McCONAHEY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 8:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 8:44 p.m.
Joe Smith was still in swim trunks when an HGTV film crew knocked on his Lakeland, Fla., door bearing balloons and news that he just won a Sonoma home worth more than $2 million.
“I’m glad I at least had my shirt on,” the retired electrical engineer for Ford Motor Co. laughed on Sunday night, minutes after the network unmasked him and his wife Cheryl as winners of the 2009 HGTV Dream Home Giveaway.
Neither of the winners had shoes on and Cheryl, who was finishing up the dinner dishes, lamented she didn’t have a moment to put on make-up before the ambush.
But when you win a prize that big and that unexpected, you’re hardly worrying about your close-up, she conceded.
“It’s like somebody dropped me in the middle of a fairy tale,” Cheryl Smith said by phone, as Joe fielded calls from well-wishers.
The couple learned about their windfall last Monday night, but they had been forced to keep their win a secret from all but immediate family until after the show aired at 8 p.m. Sunday night.
The Smiths, who have never been to California, will be flown to Sonoma on April 17 and presented with the keys to the three-bedroom, four-bath house.
The home faces busy Fifth Street East at the corner entrance to Armstrong Estates, a luxury subdivision of seven-figure mansions that developer Steve Ledson has been creating for some 20 years. Each home is built in a grand architectural style of the past. Ledson himself lives in an 1870 Italianate Victorian in the center of the neighborhood where director Francis Ford Coppola filmed his 1987 movie “Tucker. John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for Disney and Pixar, has lived in Armstrong Estates and appeared on Sunday night’s show to praise the charms of Sonoma.
If the Smiths can manage to financially swing the taxes and upkeep on the house, it will be a major upgrade. They now live in a 1,000-square-foot farm cottage, built in 1901.
Cheryl Smith, a homemaker with two grown sons and eight grandchildren, said the couple has always had a fondness for farmhouses and lived for many years on a horse farm in Michigan before retiring to Florida four years ago.
Of course, the home in east Sonoma only looks like an old farmhouse from the street. Inside it is completely furnished by a professional designer with HGTV sponsors’ products. It’s equipped for the good life with an outdoor kitchen, a large flat-screen TV and Blu-ray player, original artwork and the latest Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances. The only agriculture to farm is a pocket-sized vineyard along the fence.
The Home and Garden network has been heavily promoting the giveaway for months, both on the network and on its Web site. More than 39 million entries flooded in to the network’s headquarters in Tennessee, HGTV spokesman Emily Yarborough said.
Cheryl Smith said she entered the drawing every day from Jan. 1, when the network kicked off the contest, to Feb. 17, when the drawing closed. They also have entered the contest nearly every year since its inception in 1997.
“We’ve looked at it on the Internet and in magazines and watched the commercials and the shows,” she said. “You enter because somebody’s got to win it, but you don’t ever believe it’s going to be you. It still boggles my mind.”
The couple have nearly a year to consult a tax attorney and pay Uncle Sam. Property taxes alone on a home of similar value in that neighborhood would run more than $20,000 a year.
The Smiths said the likelihood of winning was so remote to them, they haven’t thought about whether they can afford to keep it. And if they can keep it, they don’t know if they will use it as a second home or pull up stakes and move to California.
“We’re going to have to get financial advice,” Joe Smith said. “I don’t know what the taxes are in California. But I understand they’re high. It might present a problem but I’d like to try and do it if at all possible. We’re going to come out and be neighbors.”
All 13 previous winners wound up selling their Dream Homes. The 1998 winner, Tina Carlson from Thousand Oaks, did keep her home on Bermuda Bluff Island in Beaufort, S.C., for eight years.
“Her parents got too old to travel and couldn’t come as often as they’d like so they sold it. But it was more of a vacation-style home than the one in Sonoma,” Yarborough said.
Don Cruz, the 2005 winner, fought for three years to hang on to his plush lakeside home in Tyler, Tex. But after running through his savings and taking out a loan to pay off a $675,000 tax bill, he and his wife Shelley auctioned the house last year for $1.3 million. It had been valued at $2.2 million.
Kathi Nakao of Sacramento was able to visit her dream “beach cottage” in coastal St. Mary’s, Ga., several times. She won it in 2004. But facing $400,000 in taxes and unwilling to unroot and be separated from friends and family, she and her husband sold their 3,000-square-foot vacation home for above the $1.2 million HGTV estimated it was worth. They used part of the money to remodel their 24-year-old tract house to look like a mini-version of their Dream Home.
The housing market however, has changed dramatically since then. The market is flooded with homes.
Ledson recently sold a similar house down the street for $2.35 million, dropping the price from $3 million after it had been on the market more than a year. He has said he’d be willing to buy the Dream Home back and ride out the downturned market if the Smiths can’t make a luxury second home pencil into their budget.