Most people spend their 20s living with roommates. A few cobble together enough to buy a starter home. Petra Ecclestone isn’t like most people. In 2011, when she was 22, the London-born Formula One racing heiress bought one of the largest houses in the United States — Spelling Manor in Los Angeles — for $85 million, more than almost anyone had ever paid for a house in California at the time.
She spent the next decade learning how to live in it, with a staff of more than 30 people, including housekeepers, landscapers, security personnel and drivers.
Now, she and her fiancé, Sam Palmer, are at work on a venture inspired by their experience in Spelling Manor (they sold the home in 2019 for $120 million). They are going to help other rich people buy, sell, staff and decorate their homes.
It will be one-stop service for a very niche clientele: ultra wealthy home buyers.
Mr. Palmer already runs Staffing Properties, a business that places employees in the homes of the rich. He got his real estate license last month and is joining the luxury real estate firm Hilton & Hyland. Ms. Ecclestone said she plans to handle interior design and branding.
The couple would cater to the growing number of global rich people who have flocked to Los Angeles in recent years for the weather, the lifestyle and, presumably, the proximity to other global rich people — much like they did.
They can personally attest to the market for what they can offer. After all, they know better than anyone that being ultrawealthy homeowners requires some expertise.
One common challenge: navigating labor laws that vary from country to country, and sometimes state to state. (Mr. Palmer said the number of household staff one needs to keep up a significantly sized home can seem deceptively high in the U.S.) Another challenge: upkeep and pay. (“I come from the real world,” Mr. Palmer said. “So I know real-world prices. It’s crazytown when you get into this world.”)
Rick Hilton, a founder of Hilton & Hyland (and the father of Paris and husband of Kathy), has known Ms. Ecclestone since he sold her the Manor back in 2011. He said that Mr. Palmer “has lots of global connections, and I think he could be a very strong agent.”
“And Petra, with her taste level, it could be great,” he said.
A 56,500-Square-Foot Learning Experience
Ms. Ecclestone, now 32, is willowy and blonde and has the not-easily-impressed nature of a woman of great privilege. A mother of four young children, she’s soft-spoken and a bit guarded, but at times can be disarmingly blunt and funny. Sitting outside on a warm afternoon as two kitchen staffers quietly served coffee and fresh fruit, her eldest daughter curled up in her lap, she explained that she bought the Manor in 2011 sight unseen.
But it wasn’t entirely her idea — it was her ex-husband’s. “He was a bit of an egotistical maniac,” she said, by way of explanation.
Before moving into Spelling Manor, Ms. Ecclestone hired the designer Gavin Brodin to oversee a top-to-bottom renovation. Originally built in the 1980s for the TV producer Aaron Spelling, the house had 27 bathrooms, a gift-wrapping room (which Ms. Ecclestone turned into an office for her assistant), a barbershop (which she kept as it was) and a 7,500-square-foot primary suite (which is, somewhat unbelievably, the size of a more standard mansion).
Mr. Brodin described Ms. Ecclestone as delightfully decisive. Once the plans were set, “there were zero changes,” he said. A team of 500 workers was brought on to complete the project in 12 weeks instead of a typical timetable of nine months or more.
When she moved into the Manor, Ms. Ecclestone was married to James Stunt; their divorce was finalized in 2018. It would be several more years before Ms. Ecclestone met Mr. Palmer, who is 38 and also English.
Mr. Palmer, a friend of Ms. Ecclestone’s brother-in-law, was living in Australia and working in legal recruitment when he happened to be in town and came by for a gathering in 2017. The two hit it off. Mr. Palmer said their first date was at Tao, a restaurant in Los Angeles. Their second date was a trip to Dubai.
Mr. Palmer, who has a handsome salesman’s charm and is the more gregarious of the two, said he wasn’t the type to be wowed by a person’s house — but Ms. Ecclestone’s, of course, was “spectacular.” It was also immaculate. “There was never a leaf on the ground,” he said. He soon learned that keeping it that way was a complex, expensive operation.
After Mr. Palmer moved to Los Angeles to live with Ms. Ecclestone and her three children, he became deeply interested in how the Manor was run. (Mr. Palmer and Ms. Ecclestone had a fourth child together in 2020.)
Mr. Palmer said people were overcharging Ms. Ecclestone left and right. It’s almost as if they’d pull up to a 57,000-square-foot house and think that money was no object. Figuring out the complicated math of staffing the home and making sure it ran smoothly became, as he described it, his “life’s work.”
In 2019, Mr. Palmer started Staffing Properties, leaning into this obsession. “I’m the only person who can say they’ve lived in the biggest house in California,” he said. “A lot of people come to me and say, ‘Sam, you live it. I’m experiencing the exact same difficulties you’re experiencing? What do you do? What’s the magic formula?’”
Beyond the Billionaire Bachelor Pad
The very top end of the real estate market in Los Angeles has seen something of a building boom in the past few years, with developers in Bel-Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills tearing down older homes to construct almost comically lavish mansions, some with Imax home movie theaters and private nightclubs, often for unknown buyers.
These white, glass-box, contemporary spec houses are typically designed to maximize views and attract the expanding class of global billionaires flocking to the area. Many of them are priced at $100 million or more — well above the once unheard-of price Ms. Ecclestone paid for the Manor a decade ago.
Mr. Palmer said that most of the newly built, nine-figure homes the couple sees in Los Angeles these days are basically high-end bachelor pads. “There’s black marble everywhere,” he said. “I think, ‘Do I want a house with a helicopter pad I can’t use?’” (He was referencing “Billionaire,” a speculatively built Bel-Air house by the handbag designer and developer Bruce Makowsky that came with a restored, deactivated helicopter on the roof, and that was listed for $250 million in 2017; it sold in 2019 for $94 million.)
“We go look at houses, and I think there’s so much people have missed,” said Ms. Ecclestone. “It’s our passion,” said Mr. Palmer.
Ms. Ecclestone and Mr. Palmer have themselves downsized because really, there was no other direction to go.
The couple paid $22.7 million for an 18,000-square-foot modern farmhouse across the street from LeBron James and closer to Ms. Ecclestone’s eldest daughters’ school at the time. “People write about it as though we’re living in a tent in Brentwood,” said Mr. Palmer. (Ms. Ecclestone also owns an 18th-century Georgian mansion in London the couple said is being shopped around off-market for about $200 million.)
The Brentwood home is something of a branded experience — which is, not incidentally, how they describe the service they want to provide to clients.
They dubbed the new house Vita Nova, to represent their new life together. Visitors enter through a gate emblazoned with the name in a distinctive font. A security guard greets visitors wearing a shirt with a Vita Nova logo, holding a clipboard with a nondisclosure agreement. (A reporter was granted an exception.)
There are Vita Nova candles and Vita Nova towels and even a Vita Nova signature scent, a subtle blend of coconut and lavender.
A relative skeleton crew of around a dozen people manage and run the house from staff quarters that were converted from a 10-car garage. The area includes several glass-walled offices, a break room and a professional-grade laundry operation that can also handle dry cleaning.
Mr. Palmer, whose company offices are also in this space, said he often tries out potential household staff at his own home to see if they’re a good fit before placing them in a client’s home.
One remaining challenge: finding the staff. As with many industries recovering from the economic effects of the pandemic, the labor market for household staff is tight. Some wealthy families who laid off employees during the pandemic have had a hard time hiring them back.
Though the couple said they finally feel settled in their new home, Ms. Ecclestone said their new venture will help scratch her house-hunting itch. “I’m constantly bored,” she said. “I like change.”
“I’m very attached to this house and I love it,” Mr. Palmer said. “But I’m quite on board if we can have a profit out of it. Why not just keep moving? It’s exciting.”