The lighthouse-shaped “home” for sale on the beach in Magnolia is hard to get to, but offers great views once there — though it may soon have to be demolished.
The most intriguing property on the Seattle real-estate market right now is so hidden it doesn’t even have an address. It’s best accessed by boat — provided the tide is out — and offers stunning views from a quiet oasis nestled in the trees.
Unfortunately, it might not be legal.
It’s a treehouse on the southern end of the Magnolia bluff nicknamed the “Levitating Lighthouse,” and it went up for sale this week for $475,000, cash only. Any buyer must also be prepared to read a lot of fine print.
The two-story structure was built by local crews working for the Animal Planet TV show “Treehouse Masters.” They needed to dock barges in Elliott Bay for the materials, since the area is not accessible by vehicle and is a quarter-mile walk from the nearest road.
Property owner Ronald Rae, a former lawyer who now lives north of Spokane and works for AutoNation in Bellevue, commissioned the treehouse as a summer-recreation spot after buying the property, south of the end of Perkins Lane, for $100,000 in 2013.
The lighthouse-shaped structure is supported by several cottonwood trees and features its own water catchment and filtration system and kitchenette, as well as a queen-sized bed in the upper sleeping quarters that looks up to a dome. A deck-like platform peers out to offer views of cruise ships on the water and Mount Rainier.
But there are few frills: There is no bathroom, electricity, heating or plumbing, and Rae says it should only be viewed as a vacation spot, not a full-time residence.
Rae says he wants to give up the property because he now has three young triplets at home.
But the city has its own problem with the property: It turns out Rae and the show host who built it, King County resident and renowned treehouse builder Pete Nelson, never got permits to put up the treehouse, which sits east of where several Magnolia homes were destroyed in a landslide in 1996.
After Animal Planet’s episode aired in 2014, the city sued Rae, saying the structure was too elaborate to be considered a childlike treehouse typically exempt from the building code, and it was on a steep hill next to the water. He was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and get the permits to bring the 280-square-foot treehouse properly up to code by the end of this March.
If he can’t pass the city’s inspections, he’ll have to demolish the treehouse, according to the city. Otherwise he faces a $100,000 fine.
Already, the local health department has weighed in with “significant” concerns and a city spokeswoman says it “may be a challenging permitting process” given the location. The permit issues should be decided later this year.
Rae and his attorney are hoping to classify it as a private “pavilion” and lookout to avoid the typical requirements of a house (plumbing, heating, etc.), though the city initially poured cold water on that plan.
His attorney, Stephanie Johnson O’Day, said they are trying to get crews in to further stabilize the treehouse but that it’s been difficult to access the area in the winter. She says they’ve also agreed to remove the bed from the treehouse and to deglamorize it compared to how it looked on TV to make it less houselike.
Rae says the whole regulatory process has been over the top and thinks someone could potentially build a real home there.
“My little treehouse is the least of our concerns as a community,” Rae said.
He adds that the land is stable and argues no one would be home during a potential landslide, since it wouldn’t make sense to visit the treehouse during a torrential downpour.
Some selling points of the property aren’t up for debate: The treehouse offers spectacular, unobstructed views of the water and mountains, with beachfront access.
It is one of the most private spots in town, nestled between trees near the base of the rocky bluff, below a residential neighborhood where homes cost more than $1 million.
A ladder and staircase from the beach lead up to the entrance. Rae said he went fishing there on summer days and rented an RV space nearby for a bathroom.
“It’s more suitable for somebody who lives in Seattle and can bring a sack lunch and then go home,” he said. “Nobody should think that they are going to be able to pull off an inexpensive waterfront living arrangement. It’s not going to work.”
Kelli Leese, of John L. Scott, the broker for the treehouse, says the $475,000 asking price was set partly because it is a unique property: There are only a few other adult treehouses in the city, and the views it offers are rare. She says she’s already got “several interested parties” despite only posting the listing earlier this week.
“It’s something out of a childhood dream,” Leese said.
Rae sold the empty lot next door for $175,000 a couple of years ago, but gauging the market value of the treehouse property — which the county assesses at $116,000 — is nearly impossible.
Galen Ward, CEO of the local real-estate site Estately, says 62 homes that included “treehouse” in the listing description have sold in Seattle in the last six years — but none of them was a stand-alone treehouse.
But along with all the other hurdles — the lack of access, basic amenities and uncertain fate — there is one more issue for potential buyers: Because it’s not a house, you can’t get a mortgage for it. That means the 11,300-square-foot property is offered cash-only.
Just to view the home, which is best accessible by boat, potential buyers need to provide proof they have the cash to make an offer before they can get a tour, Leese said. Even then, the tide schedule dictates when it’s accessible.
“This property isn’t for everyone,” Rae said. “But it is so cool.”
Nelson, the “Treehouse Masters” host and head of Nelson Treehouse and Supply in Fall City, was out of the country on Thursday and unavailable for comment.
He’s run into similar trouble before, here and elsewhere. King County officials ordered him to take down a treehouse he built near Fall City in 2008.