Three Ponds Farm
Don't expect to find any fire-sale prices if you're in the market for a mega-estate as a second home.

That's because the old adage that "the rich are different" is bearing out in the troubled housing market.

Billionaires hunting for unique properties to show they've arrived aren't holding back because of all the bad news about the housing market. Indeed, they're mostly paying cash for eight-figure starter estates to sellers who aren't usually in a hurry because the houses carry very little debt.

And it can easily cost nine figures to keep up with the Joneses -- the Paul Tudor Joneses, that is.

Real estate broker Susan Lowe, vice president of Chase International Distinctive Properties in Lake Tahoe, Calif., says her firm has had a record year, selling three homes for more than $10 million each in September alone.

"It's a buyer's market, except at the very high end where it's a seller's market," says Ms. Lowe,

Ms. Lowe's listings include Tranquility, a $100 million extravaganza featuring 210 acres of pine forest, a 38,000 square-foot main house, a boat house on a private lake, an artist's studio and stables. For those looking for a slightly smaller but still impressive family retreat in the same neighborhood, there is Al Tarina, a 72-acre estate listed for $37 million and boasting 1,300 feet of highly coveted lakefront.

Katherine August-deWilde, chief operating officer of First Republic Bank in San Francisco, isn't surprised by the continued activity in this rarified market sector. While she says we could see fire sales among mass-produced products such as condominiums, and luxury buyers may get more cautious, there is still an active market for the truly spectacular house.

"There's a number of people who want special second homes, and if it's a rare property -- a special vineyard or oceanfront -- it will get sold," says Ms. August-de Wilde.

Thus it comes down to a lifestyle choice when paying $23 million for an 11,800 square-foot home with seven hand-carved marble fireplaces and a 1,500 square-foot master suite set on 7.7 acres in Aspen, Colo., as someone did just weeks ago. Robert Ritchie, the listing agent for the house, Chateau Eagle Pines, calls the new Florida-based owner "conservative" in his purchase because this is only his second home, not his third, fourth or fifth, as is common in the Aspen market.

By the way, in case you had the losing bid for Chateau Eagle Pines, Mr. Ritchie, a broker at Coates, Reid and Waldron, is offering the nearby Georgian Castle for $13.5 million, which gets you eight acres and a 7,243 square-foot house with an elevator, cherry floors and a 28-foot vaulted ceiling. Mr. Ritchie says he doesn't expect Aspen to suffer a serious setback even if there is a housing-induced recession.

"If the wealthy are going to buy, they will buy the best, and Aspen is always on the list," says Mr. Ritchie. He believes that if someone owns 10 pieces of property, "the last one they sell will be Aspen."

Susan Breitenbach is equally optimistic about the strength of the high-end market in the Hamptons in Long Island, N.Y.

"I can't see it not going up, " says Ms. Breitenbach, senior vice president at the Corcoran Group, who just put Christie Brinkley's Hamptons house on the market for $30 million. She believes that there will always be people with a lot of money who want a house they can drive to so they don't have to worry about getting fogged in at Nantucket.

Her listings include Three Ponds Farm. The 60-acre property in Bridgehampton includes an 18-hole golf course, a 20,000 square-foot main house, a two-story pro shop, a three-bedroom guest house, separate staff quarters, a 75-foot pool and a grass tennis court. All for a tidy $68 million.

"It's a great price," says Ms. Breitenbach. "It's looking to be a bargain."

Still, some people say even the high end of the market may not hold up indefinitely.

"I'd be surprised if the current problems didn't trickle up," says Thomas Davidoff, assistant professor of real estate at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. "There may be less of a problem, but I can't imagine no problem."