This 1909 home at 622 Highland Ave. in Piedmont is on the market for $4,195,000. Photo: The Grubb Company

The median home price in Berkeley is now more than $1 million. In San Francisco that number is $1.5 million. Add another million to make it $2.5 million for Palo Alto. Given that these numbers are already in the realm of fantasy for most potential homebuyers, why not take a visit to la-la land and see what the really big bucks actually gets you?

$4-million-and-up properties in the East Bay are, in fact, few and far between.

“Especially in Berkeley, homes don’t usually reach that level,” said Herman Chan, a real estate broker with Golden Gate Sotheby’s. “It would be a trophy property for someone who wants bragging rights. Generally, there’s only a handful, maybe five homes for sale for more than $4 million (in the area).”

You might have more luck in Piedmont, Blackhawk, Danville or perhaps the Fremont hills, Chan said, though outliers pop up in many municipalities.

People shopping for $4-million-plus homes in the East Bay generally have a choice between a so-called legacy building with historical significance in close-in cities, or a brand spanking new place in Danville or Blackhawk, with little in the middle.

In Berkeley or Piedmont, a home in this price range would likely be an older residence, like most of the housing stock in those cities. Such a residence would be “a large house that has a pedigree,” said Anne Culbertson, a real estate agent with The Grubb Company. “So it’s either going to be a wonderful estate, something with historical or architectural significance, or a new property.”

In Danville, Blackhawk and other East Bay areas with more space to build, $4-million-plus homes are typically custom-built, spec homes for celebrity buyers such as sports figures or movie stars, agents said.

Whether old or new, these high-end homes usually have certain characteristics in common. Views of landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge are sought-after, and the better the view, the higher the price. Whether the buyer is a celebrity shopping in Danville or a tech millionaire looking in Berkeley, privacy is highly prized, achieved via hedges, gates or distance from the roadway.

The rich are very different from you and me

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, the very rich are different from you and me, and this holds true in the home buying arena as well. Folks shopping for $4-million-plus homes are not just wealthy, but very wealthy.

Certain amenities such as fireplaces and views are important, but these buyers may not set as much store by double-paned windows or $3,700 Kohler English Trellis toilets. This is because they have the wherewithal to redo the interior and exterior to their own taste.

“If you are going to put $4 million into it, you have another $2 million for amenities or renovations,” Chan said. “Often, this is their second home or pied-à-terre. These people have money to renovate the entire place and that’s not the typical buyer.”

One of the most important elements is space. Homes can range from 2,000 to 6,000 square feet and up, and the surrounding lot will generally be large. Annex buildings are sought-after, to be used for guests, family members or the maid, nanny and other help.

The Spring Mansion
The Spring Mansion in Berkeley, built in 1912, is on the market for $7.5 million. Photo: MLS

“Usually people at that level want huge driveways and homes with 3,000 or 4,000 square feet. The Spring Mansion is 12,000 square feet,” Chan said. “It’s a castle in the middle of Berkeley.”

He is referring to what has been described as the Berkeley version of Hearst Castle — 1960 San Antonio Ave., a Beaux-Arts-style mansion in Thousand Oaks presently on sale for $7.5 million. Chan is the listing agent for the 100-year-old property, which has a 30-foot-tall atrium flanked by Tuscan columns, a 15-foot-wide grand staircase and a portico at the front and back entrances.

The property gets its name from entrepreneur John Hopkins Spring, who built it in 1912. Among other things, Spring developed the town of Albany.

The estate has been on the market close to a year (and last sold in August 2015 for $6.3 million) and has many of the characteristics Chan and Culbertson identified as typical of $4-million-and-up properties: historical significance, views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, six bedrooms, six and a half baths, seven fireplaces and three acres of surrounding land.

Exterior of 2967 Avalon Ave. in the Claremont neighborhood, listed at $4.7 million. Photo: MLS
Interior of 2967 Avalon Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: MLS

Also in Berkeley, and listed at $4667,789 is the seven-bedroom, five-bathroom mansion at 2967 Avalon Ave. in the Claremont neighborhood. The 5,421-square-foot home has mahogany paneled walls, vintage tapestries on the walls of the dining room and stained-glass windows. It was last on the market in 1982 when it sold for a more reasonable $330,000.

A view of the living room at 921 Clark Place, El Cerrito. Photo: The Grubb Company
The view from the deck at 921 Clark Place, El Cerrito. Photo: The Grubb Company

Another East Bay property in this price range, 921 Clark Place in the El Cerrito hills, is less typical. Culbertson described it as “a real outlier.”

The property is on sale for $4,500,000. While there is a 625-square-foot home on one lot, the real value of this listing is the empty land — three lots totaling more than 1.5 acres.

“This is all about the land and the development potential,” Culbertson said. “I would guess this is the first property in that price range that has ever existed (in El Cerrito) outside commercial properties.”

Bebe McRae, the listing agent for the property, seemed to agree, saying in an email that it was “the first development opportunity of its kind that I’ve ever seen.”

The agent has not created a website for the property because it’s the site of vacant land with one small home and potential for five more, according to McRae. Some details can be seen on the Grubb Company website.

132 Alpine Terrace in upper Rockridge, listed at $4.5 million. Photo: MLS
Interior of 132 Alpine Terrace in upper Rockridge, listed at $4.5 million. Photo: MLS

McRae is also the listing agent for 132 Alpine Terrace in Oakland’s upper Rockridge neighborhood, on sale for $4.5 million. The 5,215-square-foot modern-style home is more typical of others in this price range, with three fireplaces, four bedrooms, three baths and a separate studio with a full bath.

The two-story home has views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Somewhat unusually for homes in this lofty price sphere, the home is also relatively close to BART, giving it the walkability factor that is increasingly important to buyers.

This 1909 home at 622 Highland Ave. in Piedmont is on the market for $4,195,000. Photo: The Grubb Company
The living room at 622 Highland Ave., Piedmont. Photo: The Grubb Company

Another home in this price range with relatively good walkability is 622 Highland Ave. in Piedmont, a seven-bedroom, 8,038-square-foot home “on the 50-yard line,” according to Anian Tunney, the listing agent. “It’s right smack dab in the middle of town, two blocks to school, two blocks to the central part of town.”

Listed for $4,195,000, the 1909 home has three fireplaces and a level back garden.

Agreeing with Chan and Culbertson that homes in this range are scarce in the East Bay, Tunney estimated that about 10 to 12 such homes sell per year. She said that compared with Marin County, San Francisco and the peninsula, “we’re (the East Bay) still a bargain. This is the least expensive area ringing the bay that is an upscale community.”

Given the relative prices in other areas, “Four million in a way is a bargain, depending on the condition of the house and its location,” Tunney said.

Janis Mara covers East Bay real estate as a freelancer for Berkeleyside. She has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based...