Housing boom reaches its tail end

The Star-Ledger, November 16th, 2006

The Star-Ledger Archive COPYRIGHT © The Star-Ledger 2006

Date: 2006/11/16 Thursday Page: 057 Section: BUSINESS Edition: FINAL Size: 1137 words

Being 'in the doghouse' isn't so bad if it's custom-built for $25,000

By SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

The housing market is going to the dogs.

Literally.

As Realtors struggle with a slowdown in home sales, a new source of income has surfaced: selling doghouses to pampered pooches.

Wipe that smirk off your face. The commissions are to die for.

On a typical "human" house, commissions amount to about 5 percent of the sale price, with half the commission paid to the seller's broker and half to the buyer's broker, or 2.5 percent each. On a doghouse, a sales agent can pocket a full 10 percent, compliments of a new Palm Beach, Fla.-based company called Doggie Mansions, which builds designer doghouses priced anywhere from $10,500 to $100,000 based on size, style and amenities.

"We know that in many areas the market has gone to the dogs, and the good news for Realtors is, so have we," jokes Stacy Small, 37, who along with her partner Donald Gorbach, 48, a veteran real estate broker, founded Doggie Mansions this past summer. "The housing market has been pretty slow and it's difficult to make money in a down market, and it occurred to both of us that this was a way we can have a sales force in place.

"It's a good incentive. On a $25,000 home, the commission comes to $2,500, and they don't have to split it with anybody."

A recent open house at the company's Palm Beach headquarters showcasing two models - the Key West beach house and a New England country estate - drew dozens of Realtors and about 20 dogs.

A BENGAL'S BABIES

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer recently shelled out $25,000 on a two-story, brick-face Doggie Mansion for his three dogs - two robust Rottweilers, Chuck and Homer, and a fine-boned Maltese named Muffin.

The 8-by-10 foot luxury dog retreat is equipped with air conditioning, a brushed micro-velvet suede couch, ceramic tile floors, large arched windows, a flat-screen plasma TV that loops classic canine movies like "Benji" and "Rin Tin Tin" and, of course, football-shaped doggie beds.

Though it's clearly the dog's territory, the 80-square-foot dwelling can easily accommodate Palmer if he ever winds up in the doghouse.

"We used a hand-cut people-sized door and made sure the house has 7-foot ceilings so that Carson himself can comfortably join his pooches should he so desire," Small said.

In New Jersey, Monroe Township resident Lauren Van Dzura, the owner of Bark Avenue Mobile Groomers, thinks in an era when pet owners think nothing of shelling out $5,500 on a Swarovski crystal doggie vest, mansions are a logical next step.

In fact, Van Dzura, 36, was so taken by the idea, she signed on as a Doggie Mansion sales agent.

"I talked to a couple of my clients to get some feedback and see how they felt about it, and I got a lot of positive feedback," Van Dzura said. "Once it catches on, it will be a great thing."

While no houses have been built yet in New Jersey, Joseph Ricci, a Realtor at Century 21 Norma Altman in Millburn, said the hefty commission may entice some agents to start pushing them. But he won't be one of them.

"I think its ludicrous, to be honest with you," Ricci said.

Since nobody technically needs a real estate license to sell a dog house, the owners of Doggie Mansions did not limit their sales pitch to Realtors. Owners of high-end pet grooming services like Bark Avenue Mobile Groomers or specialty pet boutiques can also sell doggie mansions to their clients, Small said.

A LUXURY MARKET

Van Dzura, who started her mobile pet grooming service a year ago, said she has seen her share of pampered pets.

"Some owners have entire rooms dedicated to their dogs, a bed, an armoire for their clothes, so that's pretty pampered," she said.

The fastest-growing part of the pet industry is super-high-end luxury items like Christian Dior cashmere sweaters for dogs, or luxury toys such as Chewy Vuitton plush bags and Jimmy Chew high heels.

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, based in Greenwich, Conn., estimates pet owners will spend $38.4 billion on their animals in 2006, more than double the amount they spent in 1994. That includes everything from Louis Vuitton carry-ons, pet therapists, gourmet cuisine and weekend retreats at posh camps in the countryside.

"Each year, the doghouses become more expensive," said Michelle Pollack, who designs high-end dog mansions for La Petite Maison, a company that specializes in creating doghouses that are detailed replicas of the pet owner's home. "People request more and more elaborate dog houses, and that is the change we are starting to see. Originally, someone would say we want the shell to look good, and then as they see what comes out every year, they say, okay, we changed our minds. We want to include a television or three rooms or a guest room for the doggie's friends when they come over."

Pollack, who describes La Petite Maison as the Tiffany's of the Dog Mansion industry, said she receives all kinds of requests from dog owners who fuss over every detail.

One client in Virginia wanted every brick on her dog mansion hand-painted to match the bricks on her own mansion. Other pet owners want their doghouses to include Bose sound systems so their pets can listen to music, or upholstered accents, like Pollack's exclusive faux giraffe print chaise lounges, which cost around $2,000.

Pollack doghouses run between $6,000 and $25,000 and are handcrafted and personally signed by builder Allan Mowrer.

A PLACE TO COOL DOWN

When Allison Albert, an attorney in California, decided to have a white stucco Swiss Chalet custom-built for her 130-pound Bernese Mountain Dog, Ted, she wanted him to pick out the interior color.

Ignoring the fact that dogs are colorblind, Albert asked the folks at La Petite Maison to send three different paint samples and laid each one on the floor. Ted walked over to the chips and put his nose on the light blue one first - so light blue it was, Albert said.

Ted has since died. And today, her other dog, Klyde, also a Bernese Mountain Dog, is not as smitten with his posh digs, she said.

"Ted went in there a lot, especially if it was hot, because it had marble floors and an air conditioner and he would go in and lay down on the cool marble," she said.

But today, Albert said she probably spends more time in the dog house than Klyde does - especially on hot days.

"I will go sit in the doghouse because it has an air conditioner and my house doesn't," she said.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________ Sam Ali may be reached at (973) 392-4188 or sali@starledger.com.

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