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Hilbert estate drawing some offers: Letterman, Babyface, Judd not interested

June 19, 2006

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning passed on a chance to buy the Carmel estate built for Conseco Inc. founder Stephen Hilbert that's on the market for a cool $20 million.

Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal also rejected the opportunity a couple of times, real estate broker Dick Richwine said.

Nearly a year after it went up for sale, the Carmel property labeled the most expensive home in Indiana is still searching for the right buyer. But a recent flurry of interest and two written offers make those in charge of selling the Hilbert estate optimistic.

"It's taken longer than we expected, but we still fully expect to get it sold," said Richwine, who's marketing the property with fellow broker Greg Cooper for Century 21 Realty Group I in Indianapolis.

Richwine said three people have told him they plan to make offers in addition to the two who already have. Conseco is considering the two pending offers, but Richwine declined to share any details about them.

"If I told you anything more about either situation, I'd have to shoot you," he said jokingly (we think). "I always try to respect any client's right to privacy, especially in a situation like this."

Instead, Richwine is happy to dispel a handful of rumors making the rounds about potential buyers.

No, he said, David Letterman has not made an offer. And he found no truth to the rumor that the "Late Night" host and Indianapolis native declared on his show that he wanted to buy the 40-plus-acre estate.

Actress Ashley Judd won't be moving in with her husband, Indy Racing League driver Dario Franchitti. Neither will Oprah nor Indianapolis native Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Richwine said.

"Anyone like any of those people, we've made contact with [them] and we'll do it again," he said. "But at this point in time, there's nothing to substantiate any of those rumors."

He also has fielded no phone calls from Indiana native and Lucas Oil Products Inc. founder Forrest Lucas.

"I think anybody who could potentially afford it who once lived in Indiana is a potential candidate in some people's eyes," he said.

Richwine also heard a "wild rumor" about a commercial interest that wanted to buy the mansion and rent it to visiting celebrities. He quashed that, too.

"If you've heard it, you can bet we've heard it, too," he said.

The legal fight

Hilbert's estate, named Le Chateau Renaissance, went on the market last June as part of an ongoing legal fight between Conseco and its founder.

Hilbert turned over the property to Conseco in January 2005 to keep the insurer from immediately trying to collect on an $80 million judgment against him that stems from loans he took out in the mid-1990s to buy company stock that ended up worthless.

Hamilton Circuit Judge Judith Proffitt ruled in 2004 that Hilbert owed the money, and the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld her decision last November. In March, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to review the case.

Hilbert's lawyers are preparing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he and his wife, Tomisue, have no plans to stand in the way of the sale.

"Under the court's order, the money would be put into escrow, pending the outcome of the appeal," said one of his attorneys, Phil Fowler.

Much to market

In June 2005, Cooper and Richwine began marketing the property, which took five years to build and was completed in 1993.

The main mansion features a single room that's probably worth $1 million by itself, Cooper said. Hilbert's windowless office is made of butternut wood imported from Europe. The builders also imported a European craftsman to spend months carving the panels on site.

A nearby billiard room contains a walk-in safe hidden behind mahogany panels.

A Sistine Chapel-like mural, complete with Hilbert's face on an ancient warrior's body, stares down at Italian marble floors at the main entrance.

Outside the mansion, amenities include a pool house and a $4 million "sports barn" complete with a reproduction of Indiana University's Assembly Hall basketball court and its championship banners.

The brokers initially listed the estate with no price. They just noted that it had been appraised at $25 million five years ago, Cooper said.

To even arrange a tour, potential buyers had to demonstrate they could afford the sale price. Mostly that meant something straightforward, like a financial representative vouching for them, Richwine said.

"With some people, the names themselves would take care of it," he added.

Potential buyers also have to be prepared for big bills. Basic utilities and security run about $10,500 a month. Property taxes are $92,000 annually.

Changing strategy

The brokers had nearly two dozen people tour during the first several months, but they came up empty.

"When you have that many people look at the house without making an offer, what that tells you is the price is too high," Cooper said.

They started listing a $20 million sale price in February and business picked up.

"Establishing it at $20 million absolutely changed the dynamic of how people looked at the house," he said.

Then Conseco agreed to allow the Decorators' Show House, an annual benefit for Wishard Health Services, to take place at Le Chateau Renaissance in May. In preparation, decorators spruced up the estate and added much-needed updates, the brokers said.

Workers imported spiraling topiary shrubs from Europe for the exterior. Dated decorating schemes, including an autographed painting of former Pacer Rik Smits, were covered. Holes from wall hangings were patched.

As part of the benefit, more than 32,000 people toured the estate. That massive open house gave the sellers at least 10 more potential candidates, Richwine said.

The result

Whether the sprucing and new listing price will pay off is unclear. Both Richwine and Cooper say closing a deal like this involves a lot more than arranging a mutual meeting time and signing a bunch of paperwork with a mortgage broker.

"Everything is multiplied 20-fold or 50-fold, whether it's the inspection or the terms of how the property will be purchased," Cooper said.

Even though they have two offers, the brokers are shopping for more. In fact, Richwine said he plans to show the estate to people associated with Formula One auto racing when the U.S. Grand Prix rolls into town next month.

The length of time Hilbert's estate has spent on the market doesn't surprise Re/Max Real Estate Group's Keith Albrecht, who is one of the top-selling real estate agents on the north side.

He sees two reasons: Few people can afford $20 million homes and those who can would build their own.

Richwine originally figured the estate would sell in three to six months, even though he hasn't seen any other Indiana home listed as high as $10 million in recent years.

Now, he declines to put a time frame on closing the sale.

"Unfortunately, we're not playing horseshoes or hand grenades," he said. "Close doesn't count.

"Until you're there, you're not."

Manning, whose quest for the Super Bowl came up short last year, would most likely agree
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