Frustrated with trying to sell the $699,000 house for the past year and a half, the 81-year-old put up yard signs recently advertising the car giveaway. The gleaming black Rolls hasn’t sold the house so far, but Benson is hopeful.
“Someone who might want a classic home might appreciate a classic auto to go with it,” said Benson, whose interests of late have turned to restoring pipe organs.
Selling a house in today’s foreclosure-underpinned market is difficult for anyone: On average, Orlando-area homes took more than three months to sell in April, compared with less than a month at the height of the buying frenzy in July 2005, according to figures kept by local Realtors. Owners of custom homes have to work even harder to lure qualified buyers.
Realtor Margaret Barnes said the number of showings at the Benson house has increased in recent weeks, though she was unsure whether the car had anything to do with it.
Home sellers have given away cars before. Cambridge Homes, for instance, has tossed in a Mini Cooper with a purchase. But the keys to a chauffeur-worthy Rolls?
Benson knows he’s competing against houses with furnishings staged by interior designers. His son has told him that buyers want granite counter tops and luxury master suites. Benson’s yellow-brick, columned house has none of those things. Both the house and the car, however, share a more understated appeal.
The four-story home rests on dense, fortresslike wooden beams that weigh more than cast concrete. Its long-hewn floor planks dwarf today’s laminates. Similarly, the 40-year-old car has no halogen headlights or LCD screens, but the back seat smells like hand-tooled leather from prized cowhide. The doors shut with a vacuum-seal sound rather than a metallic clang. The engine of the 2-ton behemoth, Benson said, runs so well that it “has never had a wrench touch it.”
Benson said he first fell in love with the car of British royalty in the mid-1960s, when he was stationed with the U.S. Navy in Scotland and on temporary assignment in London. Four years after returning to the States, he still longed for the classic auto and went back for one. In England, he found a used 1967 Shadow in good condition for $12,000. After paying $1,000 for shipping, it was his. Silver Shadows, produced in greater numbers than other Rolls lines, retail today from less than $20,000 to $50,000 each.
For about eight years, Benson’s collectible has been garaged at his son’s home in Kissimmee. Tom Benson tools around the neighborhood in it each week to keep it in good condition. Even when Jim Benson kept it near him in Orlando, the regal set of wheels was cloistered in his garage.
“I didn’t tell many people I owned it because people get the wrong idea – that you’re rich,” he said. “Better to play it low key.”
Benson said he still prizes the quality of both the car and the house, but he no longer drives the one, and his knees complain about the flights of stairs in the other.
“I don’t have a need for the house. I don’t have a need for the car,” Benson said. “But I’ve never fallen out of love with them.”
©2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.