Thursday, 17 Jun 2021

Nose against the glass: On the grounds of NZ’s most expensive house

Catherine Smith gets up close to New Zealand’s most expensive house.

The instructions were clear: I could visit the grounds of New Zealand’s most expensive house but inside was out of bounds.

Hosting the tour was Graham Wall, the real estate agent who brokered the $38.5 million deal for the former home of financier Mark Hotchin in 2013.

My Uber driver didn’t believe me when I told him that the house he was taking me to in Auckland’s Orakei was a record-breaker.

From the street, it is hard to read. It is not until you see drone shots that you realise the house sprawls a massive 2568sq m on 4322sq m of land, and that more than a half of it lies beneath the tiers of plastered terraces rising from the street.

It’s surrounded by lush tropical plants, the greenest grass and neatest clipped hedges in the city, and a fenced tennis court. From the driveway, there’s the expected Auckland rich garden – palm trees, bamboos and bromeliads edging a high plastered wall and electronic gates.

The house is over-scaled, and OneRoof’s photographer has to stand right at the edge of the lawn to capture the full length of the 4m-high ground floor.

The owner is Deyi Shi (everyone calls him Stone) and he granted OneRoof’s request to visit and shoot the house as part of the listing site’s report on the luxury real estate market in New Zealand, included in tomorrow’s New Zealand Herald.

Wall, who is accompanied by Ollie and Andrew, his two sons and business partners in Wall Real Estate, has sold some of New Zealand’s most expensive homes but this is the house that really made his name.

It was built by Hotchin for a reported $43m. The 2017 CV pegs the value of the whole property – house and land – at $46m but most people reckon it would be easily worth $50m now. “But it’s not for sale. Even if people offer crazy mental money,” insists Wall.

Architect Lawrence Sumich, whose clients include some of the wealthiest in the eastern suburbs, designed the house to disguise its massive proportions. It wraps around stone terraces, living rooms with kitchen on the ground floor and six bedrooms on the floor above.

“It’s a typical Sumich, but just scaled up. He’s used the roof overhangs and limestone wings to break up the size and make it read nicely. Half the house is underground,” says Ollie.

There’s a glass pool house and a spread of lawn out front and an apartment tucked to one side.

Below the main living areas are two more floors. One houses a gym, the recreation areas, an indoor pool and opens up to the all-weather tennis court. The other is the garage, which can hold 20 cars.

The view is stunning – one that gives the street its cachet with local and international buyers.

A gardener spends half a day a week trimming the grass, and tidying the garden of mostly tropical bromeliads and palm trees while the hundreds of metres of 3m-tall hedges get a top and sides cut twice a year.

Shi has made a few alterations to the house, moving a few walls and adding a door off the kitchen (where he cooks for the staff when he’s in town) so he can step outside for a cigar.

He is a keen golf player, well known at New Zealand’s luxury courses, but this summer he spread the sporting love and made the house available to Emirates Team New Zealand. Their weatherman, Roger “Clouds” Badham, spent part of his tenth and final Cup campaign high on the roof of the Paratai Drive mansion where he had grandstand views of the course to read those fickle Auckland summer clouds and winds.

Graham knows every house in the street.

He reckons he’s door-knocked the neighbouring house, a modest two-storeyed 1940s shingled house, probably every year since he’s been in real estate. But the owner, “a lovely gentleman in his 80s”, politely declines. The house on the other side, which the Walls sold last year, is a grander mid-century two-storey brick affair that’s been stylishly renovated with huge steel windows and a giant garage.

A few doors up a crane has been hovering over the building site of a new mansion for at least five years, but Graham says nobody’s game to name a finish date for the mega-build. Further down the street, the one-time American embassy is awaiting its new owners’ makeover.

Hand Graham a list of New Zealand’s richest people and he will tick off 11 of the first 30 as customers. He’s also sold to big property developers and unknown tech entrepreneurs who’ve made their fortune selling to the big US guns.

He puts his success down to good luck, such as when he was approached to dispose of the Sultan of Brunei’s portfolio of Herne Bay properties, although “luck” included flying to Brunei to talk to the Sultan’s people about the less-than-desirable fees.

“But it was great for us, we got the press,” says Wall, who still has the yellowing NZ Herald clipping reporting the sales. “People give us the opportunity.”

He adds: “Really high-value people know we have only one message. If we say something is worth $20m, then people have faith in our experience.

“And if someone offers $7m on a $10m property, we have the confidence to say f*** off, you won’t get close.”

The father and sons trio also love architecture and good design – Graham and Ollie were former ad-men, Andrew an art dealer – so relish selling standout houses such as the Ron Sang-designed Brake House in Titirangi and the 1980s glass house on O’Neills Avenue, Takapuna.

“That’s half the fun. Otherwise, it’s just bricks and mortar,” Ollie says.

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