Inside the gates of Hidden Hills

You can’t play tennis at night in Hidden Hills — lights aren’t allowed. You aren’t allowed to park on the street overnight, and there are no sidewalks, though miles of bridle paths abound. There are rules dictating ridge lines, the size of the second story, the percentage of permeable material allowed on your lot, even the 600 square feet you have to set aside for a horse barn, even if you don’t have a horse.

But one freedom the 2,000 or so residents do enjoy in this wealthy gated community in the San Fernando Valley is the ability to name your own house. In front of most of the 650 homes in Hidden Hills are charming wooden placards set near the split rail fences (which are also mandated), with names like “Ellis Island” and “Wonderland.”

One lawyer used his naming rights to send the city a message after the architectural committee tried to dictate where he could place a swimming pool on his property. He wanted to put it on the hill overlooking the street; the city wanted it on the other side. As the house was being planned, he pushed back again and again, saying, “it’s not your house,” said Marc Shevin, a Berkshire Hathaway agent and friend of the homeowner. Eventually, he was able to build the home with the pool where he wanted it, and he put a sign with his chosen name out front: “It’s not your house.”

Located a little over 20 miles from Hollywood — but very much in its orbit — Hidden Hills is a throwback to a time long since passed. It’s a gated time capsule to the 1950s, the era that spawned the city, whose ethos is spelled out at the main gate: “Relax. Slow down. Children and horses at play.”

Yet for all its old-fashioned, rules-obsessed and equestrian-minded ways, Hidden Hills is a magnet for dozens of A-list actors, reality TV stars and music artists who continue to buy multimillion-dollar homes here.

Three guard-gated entry points prevent the paparazzi from camping outside the compound of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, as well as other celeb spreads. When they lived here a few years back, actress Jessica Simpson would regularly walk her children to a neighbor’s house to pet and feed the ponies, and Jennifer Lopez would don sweatpants and a bandanna and push a stroller down the street, Shevin said.

“People who are very high-profile live a normal life in Hidden Hills,” said Shevin, who has represented Simpson and Lopez. “And that’s not always the case in other cities.”

The obsession with “normal” has made Hidden Hills a tough competitor to neighboring Calabasas, where homes and streets in the gated communities look more like “money,” as Shevin put it. Hidden Hills is also a more affordable but exclusive alternative to the more storied enclaves for the rich and famous of Beverly Hills and Bel Air.

The city has long been thought to be a relative bargain, brokers say. While homes in Beverly Hills sell for $3,300 to $3,500 per square foot, in Hidden Hills — where no residential lot is smaller than an acre — they average $1,300 to $1,400 per square foot, said Tomer Fridman, an agent at Compass whose clients include West and the Kardashians.

But Hidden Hills’ rep as a comparatively affordable bastion for the well-heeled may not last much longer. Sales prices have surged in the first half of this year, with 26 single-family homes selling for a combined $112.1 million, a 51 percent increase in dollar sales volume over the first half of 2017, according to The Real Deal’s analysis of Redfin data.

It was the second year in a row that sales dollar volume has risen by at least 50 percent in the first half of the year.

Canadian singer the Weeknd spent $18.2 million for his nine-bedroom spread last July, property records show, helping to solidify a new price floor in the city, agents said.

But as prices have risen, tensions have heightened over Hidden Hills’ rules and restrictions on home sizes. Increasingly, agents say, buyers are pushing to tear down many of the older ranch homes and build even bigger. “Part of the renaissance in Hidden Hills is the new construction that is going on there,” Fridman said.

Take, for example, a rustic home with a horse arena out back, which was once owned by Frankie Avalon, the singer-actor famous for ’60s-era beach party movies. The 2-acre property features a tennis court, a bar, a putting green, a guest house, a three-horse barn and a pool. Compass agents Dana Olmes and Jeff Biebuyck listed the home for $5.5 million.

“Some people would say they would tear it down,” Olmes said, adding that in the Trousdale Estates neighborhood of Beverly Hills, “this property would probably be listed for $20 million.”

A-list pioneers

Since its creation in the 1950s, Hidden Hills has been “discovered” by several waves of celebrity pioneers. Before there were Kim and Kanye, there was Leo Gorcey.

The prolific Hollywood actor was the first homeowner in Hidden Hills in the ’50s. Gorcey paid $35,000 for one of two model homes, a one-story ranch-style house on Long Valley Road. Back then, 1-acre lots were selling for $4,750.

The city, which incorporated in 1961, was the vision of landscape architect A.E. Hanson, who previously planned Rolling Hills and Palos Verdes Estates, which are similarly rustic neighborhoods.

Over the years, wealthy families from the Nordstroms to the Disneys have discovered the place. But Shevin, who has been selling homes here for three decades, traces the current celeb craze to the mid-1990s, when a Santa Monica developer, EGC Luxury Homes, took a bold gamble to build two large spec homes, each about 10,000 square feet.

Residents thought the developers were crazy, but Shevin sold the homes when they were still in drywall, for record prices over $6 million. At the time, the highest sales price in the enclave was around $4 million, he said.

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One of the spec houses was purchased by music producer Rob Cavallo. He converted half of his six-car garage into a music studio, where artists like Faith Hill and Green Day came by to record. Soon they brought their friends to visit, and Shevin’s phone was ringing with more entertainers interested in buying homes in Hidden Hills.

“It got a certain cool factor,” Shevin said. “So as people came out and discovered the lifestyle, developers started to build bigger homes to accommodate these buyers.”

But coolness alone was not enough to attract celebrities. They wanted privacy and security.

In 2005, when “Friends” was winding down, actor Matt LeBlanc complained to Shevin about how the paparazzi stalked him outside his gated house in Encino, often following him to the TV studio and back. When he learned that Hidden Hills had three guard gates, he bought a home there for $9 million. (LeBlanc sold it just over a year later, after his divorce was finalized.)

Hidden Hills presents a definite challenge for the paparazzi. While photographers sometimes congregate at the elementary school just outside one of the gates, the security force is vigilant, agents said. While passing through the main gate, Olmes admitted, she has sometimes let photographers in, mistakenly thinking they were part of the client’s entourage.

But no family has shaken things up in Hidden Hills quite like the Kardashians, who have lived there on and off for over two decades.

The second home that Kris and Bruce Jenner bought in the city, in 2006, was ground zero for the first few seasons of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” As the children became rich and famous they started buying homes of their own in Hidden Hills, within a few blocks of their mom.

In 2014, Kim and Kanye bought their 15,000-square-foot compound from spec developer Joseph Englanoff, who had torn down Lisa Marie Presley’s former home. After paying $19.75 million for the 3-acre spread, which has a full music studio and spa, “Kanye has about $20 million into the house already” in renovations, Compass’ Biebuyck said. “It’s nuts.”

Eventually, the city grew tired of TV production crews. A year after the Kardashians’ show debuted in 2007, the arrival of another reality show, “It’s Complicated” with actress Denise Richards — who sold her Hidden Hills home last month — led to a clampdown on filming, Olmes said. These days very little of the Kardashians’ show is filmed in Hidden Hills, she said, even though it’s where they actually live.

The go-to brokers

Real estate agents are practically family to Hidden Hill residents, brokers said. Shevin and Olmes have sold dozens of homes to two and three generations of families.

Through an accident of history — and perhaps sheer determination — only three teams working for two firms, Compass and Berkshire Hathaway, control the majority of listings here, agents said. Shevin said his team — which consists of his brother, Rory, his daughter and an assistant — sold 20 properties totaling $140 million last year. They have already sold 18 properties totaling about $100 million through the first half of this year, he said.

Compass poached Fridman, Olmes and Biebuyck last year from Sotheby’s-affiliated Ewing & Associates, where they made their name in the Calabasas area. Olmes and Biebuyck said they did 14 transactions totaling $30 million in 2017. Half of those, or $5 million worth, were off-market, Biebuyck added. So far in 2018, they say, they have sold 12 properties totaling $60 million, with two of the transactions, or $12 million, being off-market.

The intricacies of Hidden Hills could be one reason why so few agents get the listings. Outside agents sometimes struggle to learn their way around the more than 40 streets, with spotty cell phone coverage and no street lights to aid them. “It takes years to figure it out,” Biebuyck said.

But for agents who have made the commitment, the struggle can be well worth it. At any given time, some 20 homes are for sale in the city, Olmes said.

Many of those are spec homes. Ashley Ridge, one of the neighborhoods within Hidden Hills, was named after developer Mike Ashley, who catered to the mansion-seeking crowd by building more than 70 homes in the town.

The newer areas feature spec homes like one built by developer Avi Wazana on Long Valley Road. “This was a teardown for $2.75 million,” Biebuyck said. Now it’s listed at $12.4 million. The 11,000-square-foot home, which has been on the market for eight months, has six bedrooms and six baths, a guest house and a distinctly modern feel.

Wazana took advantage of loosening rules. Developers can now build the second floor up to 50 percent of the size of the first, an increase from the previous 40 percent. The maximum ridge line has risen by a few feet, to 30 feet. The Hidden Hills Community Association, which approves construction and modifications, made both changes in the last two years.

While developers and some agents wanted more dramatic changes, the city was only willing to go so far, agents said. “The architectural committee should be open to design advances and modernized details that would enhance home elevations and choices for new homeowners, as well as remodels,” Biebuyck said.

The association would not give in to some developer requests.  “They want to keep it more rural, more ranchy,” Shevin said of the association.

Even with prices rising to never-before-seen levels, Fridman, for one, doesn’t see Hidden Hills becoming a land of McMansions anytime soon.

“This is a community that is striving in a very modern world to maintain its identity and character,” he said. “That is what draws people there … Just because something is new doesn’t make it better.”