Celebrity Real Estate Investors

ImageIt’s not surprising when a wealthy celebrity buys a fantastic piece of real estate, or when they make a killing by selling one already swank abode and buying another. Like Kelly Ripa did when she traded up on her apartment.

But occasionally, a celebrity shows a real genius for real estate.

ImageMerv Griffin was such a celebrity. Griffin, who entered show business in the 1950s as “the young romantic voice of radio” and hit the big time with the Freddy Martin band, singing “I’ve Got a Loverly Bunch of Coconuts,” is probably show business’s most successful real estate investor.

Griffin, who netted $50 for his first record, became rich as the inventor and producer of “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” After he sold the shows for $250 million, Griffin became involved in real estate out of boredom.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to sit around and clip coupons for the rest of my life,’ ” he recalled in 1989. “That’s when Barron Hilton said, ‘Merv, do you want to buy the Beverly Hilton’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Griffin bought the slightly passe hotel for $100.2 million and completely refurbished it for $25 million. Then he made a move for control of Resorts International, which operated hotels and casinos from Atlantic City to the Caribbean.

That touched off a feud with real estate tycoon Donald Trump. Griffin eventually acquired Resorts for $240 million, netting a reported paper profit of $100 million.

“I love the gamesmanship,” he told Life magazine in 1988. “This may sound strange, but it parallels the game shows I’ve been involved in.”

Griffin, who died last year, went on to become a billionaire who was perennially among Forbes’s richest.

ImageEarvin “Magic” Johnson has been as successful off the court as he was in the years he was leading the Los Angeles Lakers to victory more than a decade ago. Johnson’s Johnson Development Corporation has been building retail/entertainment complexes in urban neighborhoods since 1992.

The company has formed partnerships with AMC Theaters, Starbucks, and TGI Fridays to develop previously untouchable neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Harlem, west Las Vegas and other underserved communities. The company recently announced plans to finance and office building and a condominium project in Nashville.

The company’s Canyon Johnson Fund is one of the nation’s largest urban real estate funds. JDC operates five multiplex Magic Johnson Theatres with 60 screens across the country. Since 1998, it has opened 57 Urban Coffee Opportunities stores in 38 cities. There are two Magic Johnson T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and more than a year ago, the company teamed with Washington Mutual to open 15 home loan centers in five cities.

Johnson’s success as a real estate developer has changed the way other athletic superstars invest their money.

ImageBasketball star Shaquille O’Neal has invested in urban real estate in Newark, New Jersey. Football player Keyshawn Johnson has been similarly inspired.

Johnson followed Magic into South Central Los Angeles and invested more than $1 million in real estate projects near where he grew up. He helped to fund the first new shopping center to open in the area since the 1992 riots, the Chesterfield Square Mall, where one of Magic’s Starbucks franchises leases space. Partnering with Los Angeles developer Capital Vision Equities, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver recently invested in a $123 million retail project that will connect to one of Magic’s 12-screen movie theaters.

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Not surprisingly, Oprah Winfrey, the first first African-American woman to join Forbes’ list of the World’s Richest People, has put some of her money into real estate, including:

  • The 42.77-acre ‘Promised Land’ estate in Montecito, Calif., that she bought in 2001 for $50 million and expanded in 2004 by buying an adjacent 1-acre property.
  • More than $13 million worth of oceanfront property in Maui.
    A Fisher Island, Fla., condo unit that she purchased in 1996 for $660,000.
  • A 10,433-square-foot house on 4.02 acres in Greenwich, Conn., that she bought in 2000 for $3.6 million.
  • A house in Merrillville, Ind.
  • A lakefront condominium in Milwaukee that she purchased in 2003 for $448,900.
  • Two adjoining condo units in Atlanta that she bought in 2003 for $1.515 million.
  • A condo in suburban Atlanta that she purchased in 2005 for $825,000.
  • A Nashville condo that she bought in 2002 for $191,500.
    A 7,020-square-foot house and an adjacent lot in Franklin, Tenn., that she purchased in 2001 and 2002 for nearly $1.52 million that her father occupies.
  • A 2,255-square-foot, single-family house in near west suburban Elmwood Park that she bought in 2001 for $298,000

Oprah has actually been blamed for rising real estate prices in Hawaii. An urban legend has it that Oprah told her viewers to buy land on the Big Island. What Oprah actually recommended was that viewers invest in real estate.

The truth is, Winfrey, who owns 102 acres on Maui, never mentioned the Big Island on the show in question. Her guest was real estate mogul Donald Trump on April 8, 2004, when she mentioned Hawaii.According to transcripts, Winfrey said she likes investing in land because “God’s not making any more.”

“So if you get oceanfront property in Hawaii, a couple thousand acres … right along the beach. God’s not making any more land in Hawaii,” she said.

One of the people who Oprah helped to make famous, personal trainer Bob Greene, has been dabbling in real estate for years. Long before his association with Oprah made him famous.

Greene got his start in Miami in the 1980s buying foreclosed properties in Coconut Grove, as rental properties.

I found a house that had a guest house and it had a lot that could be separated and sold. This was 20 years ago, and it was $52,000, which I didn’t have, but I knew in my gut it was such a great deal: Oh my God, I could fix it up and I would have a rental and I could have income and a house and I could have a lot I could even sell out. It was my first experience, I tried to beg, borrow and steal and just didn’t have enough for the down payment and wasn’t able to get it. A year later, when I was finishing grad school, I visited the house and it was for sale for over three times that price. And from that day on, I said, the next time I know it in my gut that it’s a good deal, I won’t hesitate, I’ll do whatever it takes to buy the property.

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Some celebrities, like Martha Stewart, have lent their name to developments as brands. A North Carolina community called Twin Lakes features homes decorated with Stewart-designed products from her Martha Stewart Living line. Other such partnerships include:

  • The Jade, a 57-unit building in Manhattan whose design was influenced by Jade Jagger, a jewelry designer and daughter of Mick.
  • Andre Agassi and his wife, Steffi Graf, formed a partnership with Exclusive Resorts to develop high-end vacation communities in the United States and abroad.

And some celebrities, have just made good deals, including:

  • Lindsay Lohan, who bought a condo on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip last year for $1.9 million and sold it, untouched for $2.5 million a few months later.
  • Gwen Stefani, who bought a 5,000-square-foot home in Los Angeles for $1.4 million in 1998 and sold it in 2007 for almost $4.8 million.
  • Paris Hilton, who sold her Spanish-style Hollywood home for $4.25 million three years after she bought it for $2.9 million.