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The price of privilege

Rising mortgage rates got you down? Concerned about renovation overruns? Tired of tipping the kid who mows the lawn? Please. Try living in a mega-mansion.
It's the little things, like a driver, that add up the cost of living in a mansion.
It's the little things, like a driver, that add up the cost of living in a mansion.Comstock via
/ Source: Forbes

Rising mortgage rates got you down? Concerned about renovation overruns? Tired of tipping the kid who mows the lawn? Please. Try living in a mega-mansion.

These days, it's not unheard of for well-heeled buyers to purchase homes totaling several thousand square feet, with half a dozen bedrooms, twice that many marble bathrooms, acres of kitchen counter, indoor swimming pools, and manicured grounds as far as the eye can see. They may spend upward of $10 million, $20 million or even $30 million for such properties — and that's just for starters.

These homeowners face thousands of dollars in heating and air-conditioning costs, landscaping fees that come to more than $1,000 a month and, in many cases, six-figure property taxes. They need housekeepers to make all the beds, scour the sinks and fold the laundry; nannies to look after the kids; and landscapers to prune trees, plant perennials and groom private golf greens. Tack on the salaries for personal chefs, drivers, and managers who keep the home — and the lives if its inhabitants — running smoothly, and you've got a more realistic idea of what it costs to run a multi-million-dollar home.

"There is a growing understanding that a more complex lifestyle creates the need for a staff," says Natasha Pearl, chief executive of Aston Pearl, a New York-based firm that provides high-end concierge service for the wealthy.

One of Pearl's clients had invested so much money in her wardrobe that she hired a laundress whose sole purpose was to iron skirts, tops, dresses and linens.

"I have heard of people who are meticulous about wanting a certain type of flower at a certain type of freshness," she says. "Or fresh water on the bedside before they go to bed."

It's no secret that the rich are getting richer. This year the Forbes 400 list was made up entirely of billionaires, and the Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances shows that nearly 40 percent of the country's wealth is held by the richest 1 percent. Despite a nationwide housing slowdown, investment banker Christopher Flowers shattered a New York real estate record this month when he bought an Upper East Side townhouse for $53 million. And there are currently three homes on the U.S. market — in Palm Beach, Fla., Aspen, Colo., and Lake Tahoe — priced at $100 million or more. And the properties are as oversized as the price tags.

To take care of all that space, some affluent homeowners are enlisting the help of household and estate managers to supervise the staff and communicate with vendors and delivery people. For people with numerous work, charitable and social obligations, industry experts say it helps to employ a personal assistant to address and mail invitations, pay bills and respond to solicitations. And if you are a very highly paid individual, it makes perfect sense to pay someone to do smaller, simpler tasks so you can focus on the more complex, lucrative and enjoyable ones.

"You start off with somebody who cleans your house and then you typically have a handyman," says Pearl, whose clients are a 50-50 mix of inherited wealth and the newly rich. "You generally add a chef or cook, and if you have kids you have childcare. Then you get into things like drivers. Then you've got so many people that you need to manage that you look into a household manager."

There is no reliable data on the number of private household staff working in the U.S. An unknown portion works off the books, and others are tracked under "janitorial services" or "child care workers." But industry experts say the market is growing — in more ways than one.

"There is more demand for higher-skilled trained professionals," says Mary Louise Starkey, chief executive of the Denver-based Starkey International Institute for Household Management. "Salaries are higher. Ten years ago, a household manager would probably be earning about $50,000 a year. An entire budget was $250,000. Now it can easily be $800,000 a year."

Maureen Drum Fagin, director of career services at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, says that depending on experience and region, full-time, private chefs can make up to $150,000 per year. That's in contrast to the $40,000 Manhattan sous-chefs with five years of experience typically earn.

But it's not a cake-walk, since these homeowners are often "people in the world of business who have moved mountains," Starkey says. No desire is too great — or too idiosyncratic.

Starkey recalls a client who owned a massive Connecticut spread but used it only about 60 days out of the year. In the state, homeowners install fences to keep the deer off their property. But this family found the fences obtrusive. So upon entering the estate, their driver called the groundskeeper, who removed them for the duration of the family's stay.

Indeed, "service is in the eye of the beholder," says Starkey, "and it has to be in their style."