A little-known Northern California town, established more than 100 years ago on a tract of land owned by a Scottish liquor wholesaler named James Ross, offers some of the nation’s most expensive homes. The area, a San Francisco suburb north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is a leafy retreat for celebrities, executives and a few politicians.
But even Ross can’t keep pace with Alpine, NJ, where the median home sale is $6.7 million and prices have jumped 41% year over year, according to Realtor.com. Where Ross flies under the radar of media scrutiny, residents of Alpine inevitably get attention. In a town where single-family homes sometimes list for more than $50 million, the current most expensive listing is a seven-bedroom, 12-bathroom mansion priced at $18.5 million.
Though wealthy neighborhoods hold their appeal through storms, recessions and stock bubbles, even Ross stumbled considerably in recent years before bouncing back with a vengeance in the last 12 months. The greater San Francisco area saw a 38.6% decrease in home values from 2006 to 2011, according to Jennifer DuBois, a director at Realtor.com, which supplied 24/7 Wall St. with data about America’s 10 most expensive zip codes for home buyers. This year, median list prices in Ross’ zip code, 94957, have shot up more than 73% from a year ago.
In the 10 luxury zip codes, where median list prices in September were at least $2.8 million and as much as $6.7 million, residents are incredibly wealthy. Median household income in some of these area are $30,000 to $50,000 higher than the U.S. median income of $51,914. In the United States in 2010, 4.2% of households earned $200,000 or more. In school districts in five of these zip codes, at least 25% of households earned $200,000 or more. In Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the most expensive neighborhoods, it was 43.9% in one area.
While Ross’ recovery is impressive, wealthy neighborhoods are not leading the nation’s housing recovery. “We have started to see a recovery in key housing indicators such as median list price and inventory,” says DuBois of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods. “But these luxury areas are not recovering as fast as some less expensive areas, such as Bakersfield, Calif. or Oakland, Calif.”
The housing recovery is benefitting from tighter inventories and eager buyers willing to pay higher prices to make a purchase — especially in these high-end markets. Nearly every neighborhood on the list has a smaller inventory of homes for sale than it did one year ago. And top-notch neighborhoods are anything but a secret: DuBois says that these 10 zip codes are all in the top 50 most-searched-for metropolitan statistical area on Realtor.com.
Another factor driving competition for high-end homes is an increase in international buyers, particularly in the past three years, says DuBois. And these buyers aren’t bottom-feeding for bank-owned properties. They are looking for homes in the $250,000 to $500,000 range, well above the national median list price of $191,500. There’s also been a surge in demand for homes priced at more than $1 million. Even more telling: more than three in five of these international purchases are made in cash, a ratio that has continued to rise since 2007, according to Realtor.com.
Based on home price data provided by realtor.com, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 U.S. zip codes with the highest average listing price for the month of September. Realtor.com also provided September values, as well as one-year and one-month changes in list prices, median age of inventory, and total number of homes listed. In order to reflect local economic measures, 24/7 Wall St. identified school districts within each zip code, and obtained data from the U.S. Census Bureau on income, poverty, and educational attainment for 2010, the most recent available data for these areas.
These are the most expensive neighborhoods in America.
> Median list price: $2.82 million
> City/town: Bel Air, Calif.
> Year-over-year change: 16.4%
In Bel Air, nestled in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, great views command a hefty price tag. Media rooms are a must-have because many locals work in what’s known as “The Industry,” meaning Hollywood. One current listing is a $29.9 million property that boasts 20,000-square feet in a “glorious, gated and private compound.” In ritzy Bel Air, it’s not enough to own a pool, you also need to have a cabana. Between August and September, median list price in the 90077 zip code shot up more than 16%, while prices across the U.S. rose by less than 1%.
> Median list price: $2.90 million
> City/town: Greenwich, Conn.
> Year-over-year change: 16.1%
Greenwich has catered to many affluent homeowners dating back to its inception in 1640. And while a handful of current listings top $20 million, there are also a number of entry-level family homes available for under $1 million, something unseen in other communities on this list. No doubt, size is a leveling factor: Greenwich has a population of 61,171 according to the 2010 census. Still the majority of the Greenwich region is extremely wealthy. In 2010, 43.9% of households in the Greenwich School District earned $200,000 or more, compared to 4.2% of households nationwide.
> Median list price: $3.19 million
> City/town: Santa Barbara, Calif.
> Year-over-year change: 2.9%
That Montecito is a 90-minute drive from Hollywood isn’t lost on the dozens of celebrities that claim this 9-square mile suburb of Santa Barbara as home. Like a trendy restaurant with a line around the block, Montecito could probably fill a waiting list of wealthy people who want to move to its ocean-cooled climate (possibly to live near Oprah). The area is also a retirement destination — more than one in four residents were over the age of 65 in 2010. A slight decrease in homes for sale compared to 2011 isn’t helping to satisfy potential buyers.
> Median list price: $3.29 million
> City/town: Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
> Year-over-year change: 13.5%
This unincorporated part of San Diego County boasts some of the highest earning families in the country, but it has a relatively small population of just 3,117, according to the 2010 census. That type of exclusivity has drawn its share of wealthy and famous residents, including singer Janet Jackson and actress Geena Davis, among many others. One $40 million home currently for sale in “The Ranch,” as it is known, epitomizes the appeal: eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms, 16,000 square feet and various ponds and waterfalls home to koi fish, according to Realtor.com.
> Median list price: $3.75 million
> City/town: Beverly Hills, Calif.
> Year-over-year change: 17.2%
In a town named Beverly Hills, it may be surprising to learn that most of its denizens actually live in the “flats.” Not surprisingly, the most expensive homes are ones with great views. Beverly Hills has been glamorized or satirized in TV shows such as “90210” and “Beverly Hillbillies,” and movies such as “Pretty Woman” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” But these days it may be best known for extremely high-end shopping and restaurants on Rodeo Drive. Inventory remains an issue for buyers looking at this market.
> Median list price: $4.30 million
> City/town: Atherton, Calif.
> Year-over-year change: -4.5%
Atherton has the feel of an exclusive club where membership costs continue to soar as prospective members wait to pounce on the next mansion that comes up for sale. Silicon Valley initial public offerings have helped fuel sales and the town has made a strong post-recession recovery. Unlike some affluent neighborhoods on this list, Atherton boasts exceptional public schools that help offset the San Francisco Bay Area’s notoriously high cost of living. Median income in the greater bay area in 2010 was $71,975, more than $20,000 higher than the national average.
> Median list price: $4.93 million
> City/town: Woody Creek, Colo.
> Year-over-year change: 26.4%
Visitors may find it difficult to believe that this once-rustic part of Northwest Colorado, located near the posh community of Aspen, is centered around an eponymously named tavern where Hunter S. Thompson held court. In recent decades, the presence of other iconoclastic artists, including rock stars, has further strengthened property values. Inventory has held steady since last year, and home prices continue their steep ascent, rising by 26.44% between September 2011 and September 2012.
> Median list price: $5.10 million
> City/town: New York, N.Y.
> Year-over-year change: Unavailable
New York City neighborhoods in this zip code, which include Greenwich Village and Tribeca, are home to some of the nation’s best jazz clubs and feature many stately homes built more than 100 years ago and condos priced at the top of the market. Demand is so high for this once-Bohemian neighborhood that some one-bedroom apartments command $1 million or more. Some buildings in the area were damaged following Sandy, which could mean that inventory may get even tighter.
> Median list price: $5.30 million
> City/town: Ross, Calif.
> Year-over-year change: 73.6%
Ross residents cherish the comforts of living in one of the nation’s wealthiest enclaves, but one service they don’t have is mail delivery directly to their homes — they must pick up letters at the local post office. Still, it’s not a long walk — and an easy drive in a Range Rover — as the town is only 1.6 square miles and the downtown, known as Ross Commons, is within easy reach. Like other towns and neighborhoods on this list, limited housing inventory is pushing up prices,which rose 73.61% between September 2011 and September 2012.
> Median list price: $6.70 million
> City/town: Alpine, N.J.
> Year-over-year change: 41.1%
Alpine residents may feel secure behind their iron-gated entrances, but they did not escape Sandy’s wrath, which knocked out power through much of the town and across Northern New Jersey. Mayor Paul Tomasko reported that the storm damaged many homes, but residents of this ultra-upscale enclave are likely to begin restoration efforts immediately. It’s not surprising that a town with so many celebrities, including Stevie Wonder, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, enjoys a very low crime rate. It’s easy to understand the appeal of Alpine, which is located just 15 miles from midtown Manhattan. Median household income in the area’s Tenafly Borough School District, was more than $125,000 in 2010, more than double the U.S. average.