Chattanooga's top five most expensive home sales prices ever:
Source: Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors
Among the 83 homes with list prices above $1 million in the Greater Chattanooga Area Realtors' Multiple Listing Service:
• 5 are priced above $3 million
• 7 are priced from $2 mllion to $3 million
• 71 are priced from $1 million to $2 million
Source: Chattanooga Multiple Listing Service
Luxury homeowners found themselves locked in a gilded prison during the recession.
With money tight, many found out that their $15 million dream home was worth far less than they thought. Selling it would mean losing much of their investment.
Even in good times, homes with price tags in the millions rarely hold their value, as the expensive personal touches that ratchet up the price may not appeal to the next buyer.
Even so, buyers are beginning to re-release their luxury abodes into a market that's on the verge of recovery, according to real estate agents.
Total Chattanooga-area sales of homes that cost more than $1 million rose to $37.12 million in 2011 -- the highest ever -- after falling to $18 million in 2009. However, the total number of luxury homes sold has fluctuated through the recession, rising to 21 in 2010 before falling again to 16 homes sold in 2011.
Some are selling out of necessity. Others are selling because, for the first time in years, they have a chance of recovering some of their investment.
"You spend a lot of money making it your dream home," said Realtor Rob Hatchett. "It's tough to let that go."
Hatchett is trying to sell a $5.3 million Ooltewah house that was designed and build by Elizabeth Fuller, wife of the late founder of Southwest Motor Freight, Clyde Fuller.
If sold, it would be the most expensive home sale in Chattanooga history, according to the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors.
The luxury mansion would look right at home on a French vineyard or in the hands of a Hollywood movie mogul.
"She had this home in her mind, and she built it exactly the way she dreamed it," Hatchett said.
Stone lions guard a bronze fountain at the front entrance. In back, an infinity pool anchors a large patio suitable for entertaining 150 close friends. Spectacular views of the valley stretch all the way to Lookout Mountain.
Buyers from Michigan to Morocco have expressed interest in the breathtaking residence.
And yet, no one has stepped up to the plate.
"You never quite get back what you put into it," Hatchett said. "We're just hoping the right person comes along."
While the 8,720-square-foot Fuller house is a work of art, its Californian art deco design harkens back to another era.
The new school of thought is a bit different, said high-end Realtor Linda Brock.
Much like the rest of the home-buying public, luxury buyers are now looking for quality over size, she said. Instead of a unwieldy palace, many modern luxury homebuyers are seeking fewer rooms and richer materials.
"The old way of thinking was 20 rooms, which nobody needs," she said. "What buyers are looking for today is not a huge house but a very well-appointed house that is well-maintained."
She hopes to sell her 7,499-square-foot listing in Soddy Daisy for $3.25 million, based on its unique architecture that just isn't available in other homes.
A barreled-ceiling that could be ripped from the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Germany, goes well with the hand-hewn doors carved from knotty Alder wood.
Cool, moist air blows up through the backyard from Possum Creek, so that a resident watching TV in the covered outdoor lounge doesn't get overly warm.
"When people would call me to sell in 2009 and 2010, I'd say that if you don't have to sell, now's not the best time," Brock said.
But she's confident in the current market, this lakefront villa will find its next owner. And it's not the kind of false bravado that carried many Realtors through the worst of the recession.
"The seller built this in 2009 when construction costs were lower, and people know that you could never get a home like this built for anywhere near $3.25 million these days," she said.
In Dunlap, Tenn there's a rumor going around that country music legend Reba McEntire owns a sprawling estate a few miles from an obscure exit on highway 111.
From the outside, it seems plausible.
Groomed, rolling hills squeeze together around a spring-fed lake. High above, a country cottage juts into the air in front of a generous cedar deck. Passers-by peer through the wrought-iron fence, hoping to catch sight of someone famous.
Homeowner Tiffany Hixon, who isn't in any way related to McEntire, said she wouldn't be surprised if a celebrity bought the 450-acre property.
"It's designed so you can land fly your buddies up for the weekend by helicopter, leave the girls at the pool and head back down these groomed trails to the writer's cabin," Hixon said.
The $4.2 million property, which was built in 1996, includes luxury features that most buyers don't even realize they want.
For easy cleaning, a deer-antler chandelier lowers itself to the ground with a touch of a wall switch. Across a small bridge, the property's 13,000-square-foot helicopter hanger is fully air-conditioned and includes an upstairs mezzanine and well-appointed downstairs. It's big enough for both a car collection and a wood-paneled bar.
"The man factor on this thing is off the charts," said Chas Clements, who is preparing the property for a high-end auction.
An auction is a good way to generate excitement for a property that is so special that it would benefit from the extra exposure, Clements said.
The housing market typically improves in stages, said real estate agent Jack Webb.
First, buyers snap up the inexpensive homes in the $100,000 range. Then, the upper-middle class homes start to sell. The last piece of the puzzle is the luxury home market, Webb said.
"It's usually a bottoms up market," Webb said. "When people start coming back off the sidelines, they come off the sidelines at the lower price ranges first."
Increased activity, like a 37 percent rise in home showings, could bode well for sellers in the Chattanooga area, he said.
But hopes for a quick rebound are unrealistic at best, he cautioned.
"Slowly and incrementally, the market is going to come back, but it's going to take several years," he said. "
Hatchett says that even with incremental improvement, the market still has about four years of luxury home inventory at its current sales pace.
A few luxury homeowners are still waiting for prices to creep back up. However, they could soon be outnumbered by buyers looking for an investment with better returns than the unstable stock market, he said.
"They're finding out that the thing with stock is I don't get any use out of it, but I can live in this house for four more years," Hatchett said.