From Laguna to Malibu and Santa Barbara, primo properties by the sea fetch top dollar.

frank gehry house
One of Frank Gehry's few oceanfront commissions, this architectural masterpiece towers one story above newer houses on Malibu’s Broad Beach.

Beach access, sunset views, dolphins (not to mention billionaires) as neighbors—these are some of the perks of living along Southern California’s fabled coastline. From Santa Barbara to the OC, these prized, always in-demand locations have one thing in common: At land’s end, they are high-priced commodities, thanks to the California Coastal Commission, which has determined that all future oceanfront developments face a protracted and expensive process for approval. Southern California may not equal the South of France in dollar price per square foot, but these jewels of the American Riviera are truly rare parcels.

In Laguna Beach, the most coveted oceanfront properties can go for almost $60 million. “We have witnessed a robust increase in sales of the megamarket,” says Rod Daley, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Previews International, who sees Laguna Beach’s market on an upswing. Daley is representing a $59.9 million custom built, oceanfront manse recently completed (after nearly a decade under construction).

The 18,000-square-foot palazzo, with a guesthouse inspired by architect Philip Johnson’s minimalist-chic “Glass House,” is on land that once belonged to the Irvine family, set within the super-private beach community of Irvine Cove. Getty Villa–style marble flooring, Murano glass chandeliers, and numerous other architectural elements imported from Italy are among the house’s modern day Gatsby-esque touches. The area is a CEO magnet: Warren Buffett has a place in nearby Emerald Bay as does Bill Gross, founder of investment firm PIMCO.

Shore Cliff Road property
Thanks to the hilly beachfront, this Shore Cliff Road property in Corona Del Mar is its own private paradise.

Newport Beach’s priciest water-facing lots are divided between bay (on the Newport Harbor) and beach. On Shore Cliff Road in Corona Del Mar, a jaw-dropping oceanfront setting is the selling point for one $28 million, 30,000-square-foot lot, per Bob Weglarz of Coldwell Banker Previews International (co-listed with partner Mary Ellen Weglarz). “It’s not really about the structure,” explains Weglarz of the bluff-side property that terraces down to the sand. “This type of location, space, and natural beauty rarely comes on the market.” The expanse between house and beach conjures up Monterey, not the OC.

The premium for beach frontage is highest in celeb-happy Malibu, of course. At the top of the market, the Borman Residence (asking price: $57.5 million) combines Frank Gehry architecture, four lots (160 feet of scarce beachfront on Broad Beach), and grandfathered components such as a tennis court and roof height one story taller than current zoning. “The Borman Residence is one of the most architecturally significant beach properties anywhere,” contends Jeffrey Hyland, president of Hilton & Hyland , of the home—one of Gehry’s few waterfront residential commissions. He adds, “It would cost more to build it today than the asking price and [it would be] five years before you could move in—all assuming Mr. Gehry is available!” (He’s not. We checked.)

While celebrities, media moguls, international buyers (read Russians), and Oracle’s Larry Ellison are Malibu’s most high-profile homesteaders, Montecito and Santa Barbara appeal to those who want oceanfront views without the glitz. “Typically, those who buy here want the lifestyle,” says Maureen McDermut, real estate agent at Sotheby’s International Realty Montecito. “They are looking for quiet and quality of life.”

 Fernald Point property
At this sand adjacent Fernald Point property in Montecito, dramatic ocean views give the midcentury home some stiff competition.

Estate homes here tend to be integrated into the landscape with European flair, have some history and are rarely supersize. And properties can be a relative value: McDermut is representing (along with Bob Lamborn) three acres that open to 244 feet of oceanfront on Montecito’s Fernald Point for $24M. The dry-beach property (meaning there’s room for a towel on the sand) is one of a few waterfront Montecito properties. The site is the appeal—the guesthouse, pool, and 7,300-square-foot Midcentury Modern main house are mere add-ons.

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