Considering the Wall Street Journal’s “mansion porn”

The Wall Street Journal sends a special supplement each week to readers looking at the houses of the wealthy:

Mansion, The Wall Street Journal’s real-estate supplement, arrives each Friday slipped into the middle of my newsprint edition, the way pornography (so I’m told!) used to come in unmarked envelopes back before the internet placed it at everyone’s fingertips. I’m satisfied with my weekly print version, but you may prefer reading Mansion on the web, where the photographs are more numerous, detailed, lurid, and explicit…

The comparison to porn is apt. It’s also unoriginal and incomplete. A little more than a decade ago, when the century was young and right before their real-estate holdings drove millions of people into bankruptcy, New York magazine ran a regular feature about how fabulous it was to own real estate. And not just to own it, but to fantasize about it, drool over it, caress the photos and the sales price as though they were objects of sensual desire. The feature was called “Real Estate Porn,” in keeping with the salacious content.

Mansion invokes the same feelings of naughtiness: You’re watching people do something that, in a fairer and more just world, you’d be doing yourself. I think of Vivian Dixon and John Chapple, a married couple that Mansion introduced us to not long ago, as the exemplars of the Mansion character. They are voluptuaries of real estate. They grab houses the way the rest of us scoop mints from the little bowl as we leave a restaurant. At the time of the article’s publication, in May, they owned six residences, though by the time the piece ends you suspect their trigger finger is getting itchy again…

This willingness to take the wealthy on their own terms is a rarity in American business journalism. Reporters are usually more leery in their treatment of such subjects, when not nakedly hostile. Few people in the world despise the winners of the capitalist lotto more than the sorry drudges who are called to write about them. You’ll find a higher percentage of committed socialists in the newsroom of the Financial Times than at a lakefront party at Bernie Sanders’s dacha.

I have not seen this section but I wonder if tackles several darker essentials of American culture from the beginning:

  1. The presence of really wealthy people in the midst of an egalitarian/middle-class public discourse.
  2. The importance of real estate in American life. Sure, citizens can vote and a few people can move from the bottom to the top in unique ways but the real answer to getting ahead is real estate (from moving the frontier for 150+ years to gobbling up expensive properties in  global cities).
  3. The work that goes into homeownership in both maintaining and improving properties.
  4. The interest in seeing what the rich are up to and uncertainty about whether to critique their excess or celebrate their success.

It would be interesting to know how many Americans exist at this elite level of real estate. This is not the typical homeowner hoping to make money on their single-family home or the small market house flipper or the “dream hoarders” in the top quintile of earners; these are people buying and selling with large amounts of capital (perhaps some even thinking like the current president).

New Bel Air homes of over 17,500 square feet cannot be called McMansions

In recent years, a number of extra large houses have been constructed in Bel Air. But, these are not just regular McMansions:

Rosen rallied his neighbors in a mini-revolt against City Hall. The result was 2017’s Bel Air mansion ordinance, a more rigid version of the ordinance imposed on the rest of Los Angeles. While many of the hauling trucks are now gone, the wealthy enclave is still grappling with the legacy of its McMansion years. Between 2014 and early 2017, the city issued 28 permits for mansions in Bel Air of 17,500 square feet or larger, most of which are still under construction, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. The projects are exacerbating a spec-home building spree that rattled longtime Bel Air residents and is dramatically altering the landscape of the area, not to mention its real-estate market.

As of Wednesday there were 12 homes in Bel Air of 15,000 square feet or larger currently sitting empty and unsold in, according to MLS data cited by Steve Lewis, President of CORE Real Estate Group in Beverly Hills.

These are not regular McMansions in suburban neighborhoods: these are megahomes going for megaprices and constructed by and for the ultra-wealthy.

Meanwhile, on Chalon Road, Thomas Barrack Jr., the Colony Capital CEO and pal of President Donald Trump, is nearly done building out an eight-acre compound with a 77,000-square-foot mansion being designed by Peter Marino. Barrack is building it on behalf of the royal family of Qatar. Other competing giant offerings, including the Mountain, a 157-acre plot in Beverly Hills Post Office now listed for $650 million, and a 120-acre site owned by an entity linked to the late Paul Allen asking $150 million, don’t have plans or permits in place for mega-mansions, Blankenship said.

Massive spec mansions on the market right now include Bruce Makowsky’s 38,000-square-foot estate at 924 Bel Air Road, asking a much-reduced $150 million, and the Mohamed Hadid-developed mansion at 901 Strada Vecchia, which is the subject of an FBI probe and a lawsuit from neighbors who want to see it torn down.

Granted, it sounds like some of the activity in Bel Air may be consistent with several features of McMansions: big homes, teardowns, and status symbols for the wealthy. For those who live in Bel Air, it could be disconcerting to see the scale of new construction. But, this article focuses primarily on the really big homes, the ones that are not just someone upgrading from a 2,000 square foot ranch to a 5,000 square foot home with a mishmash of architectural features. The last example in the piece illustrates this difference between a McMansion and mansion: a billionaire/actress couple want to tear down a home under 8,000 and more than double the square footage in a new home. Again, that is a scale far beyond the average upper middle-class American (and that does not even include the price it takes to buy into this particular neighborhood). Perhaps the real goal of using the term McMansion here is to denigrate the new homes and not grant them the status of mansion.

I would argue McMansions are roughly 3,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. The bottom end may seem rather small but this size home could be quite large if constructed in a home of small homes. The upper end is a rough cutoff when a home goes from regular big home to extra large/wealthy big home. Size is a critical factor in defining a McMansion and these Bel Air homes are way beyond McMansion limits.

Building celebrity mansions that can stave off wildfires

The Woolsey Fire in southern California has claimed the large homes of numerous celebrities:

Early Monday morning, Cyrus tweeted that her Malibu home — a $2.5 million mansion she purchased with her fiance, Liam Hemsworth, in 2016 — had been destroyed. The Woolsey Fire, which has been burning swaths of Los Angeles and Ventura counties in Southern California since Thursday, has forced evacuations and threatened thousands of homes from Thousand Oaks to Malibu…

Butler focused the camera on the charred frame of his former house, surrounded by ash and the blackened shell of a truck…

In a post on his website, Young stated that he had just lost “another” house to a California fire, referring to the Malibu home he shared with Daryl Hannah…

As The Post’s Sonia Rao reported, the historic Paramount Ranch production set in Agoura Hills burned on Friday, while wildfire threatened the nearby homes of a slew of celebrities, including Guillermo del Toro, Alyssa Milano, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kim Kardashian-West and Kanye West, James Woods, Orlando Bloom, Melissa Etheridge, Rainn Wilson, Cher and Pink.

Given the amount of money wealthy people put into their homes, what features could help a home avoid wildfires? A few options:

  1. An exterior sprinkler/hose system to help keep the home wet and not burst into flames.
  2. A protective shell that could arise around the exterior of the home.
  3. Construction out of certain materials that would be more fire-resistant.
  4. Building homes within communities that have permanent fire breaks around them or other devices to help slow fires before they arrive at individual homes.

None of these options would be cheap but there could be an opportunity here. And if these options could be had at a reasonable price, perhaps they could make their way to the general market.

(Side note: see an earlier related post about creating a McMansion that could withstand other natural disasters.)

The houses of Donald Trump

I was recently looking into what Donald Trump has said about the single-family home – arguably the cornerstone of the American Dream – and found this article on his six personal homes (including pictures and video tours). Two quick thoughts:

  1. Not surprisingly, Trump does not go small with his homes. No McMansions here. These are all expensive, luxurious properties.
  2. His homes are all on the East Coast or in the Caribbean. For a man who built his candidacy for president on support from forgotten America, his homes are from the elite areas.
  3. His style seems to be more traditional. This may be to project that his relatively new power – several decades of money and influence – are connected to traditional sources of power. There is not a modernist structure here. The Manhattan penthouse maybe comes the closest but even that is more opulent than modern or edgy.

Are the Kardashian/Wests selling a mansion or a McMansion?

Save up all your Black Friday funds to purchase this large home – which may be a mansion or McMansion.

By now, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have surely settled in at their tasteful Hidden Hills mansion, not far from Kris Jenner’s place, so it makes sense that they’re moving toward unloading the tacky Bel Air Crest estate that they’ve been renovating since they purchased it in 2013 (hopefully to make it less tacky). TMZ hears that the couple are readying to put the Tuscan-inspired McMansion on the market within the next few days, and that the house will be asking “more than $20 million.” Kim and Kanye paid $9 million, and reportedly dropped $2 million on renovations.

Shortly after buying the house, the British press reported that the couple’s deep renovations included things like a fridge covered in Swarovski crystals, a million-dollar security system, and four gold-plated toilets. We’ll have to wait for the listing photos to see whether those items ever made it into the house. Last September, perhaps fed up with trying to turn the estate into their dream home, Kim and Kanye reportedly whisper-listed the half-finished house for $11 million.

Lots of pictures follow.

I’ve discussed a number of these mansion/McMansion claims over the years. This particular house provides another strong example. On the mansion side, you have a large home, a wealthy location, numerous luxury goods inside, and famous owners (average people might live in McMansions but not famous people). On the McMansion side, it features the Mediterranean style common in many McMansions, it was a fixer-upper (if an expensive one), and using this term provides permission to criticize the home (it is tacky compared to their real mansion).

Although I presented two sides above, this isn’t much of an argument: given the size and expense of this house, it is clearly a mansion.

Selling mansions with a luxury experience

The arms race to sell more real estate – from live-in managers to personal notes – now includes creating luxury experiences in expensive homes for sale:

Before entering through a Casey Key mansion’s arched doors to attend a “VIP reception” to spur a sale in November, guests first had to navigate their way through a jaw-dropping array of luxury automobiles — Lamborghini, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and a reproduction 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster — parked in the 6,600-square-foot home’s motor court.

A few weeks later — and also on Casey Key — guests at a 10,000-square-foot, $15 million mansion for sale were greeted by Saks Fifth Avenue models who offered perfumes and skin care products in the oversized master bathroom.

In the Sarasota Ranch Club recently, a chef displayed his skills in the enormous kitchen of a 7,200-square-foot, $2.6 million listing…

Often, such events top $5,000 to run, or about 10 percent of a typical $50,000 marketing budget for a waterfront mansion priced at $10 million or more.

While I’m sure this creates some buzz – and it seems everyone likes buzz these days – it seems like it would help people envision how the house could be used. If a primary motivator of buying a big home is to impress people (this is what critics of McMansions argue), actually seeing the home put to that use could go a long way.

Interestingly, the article hints that this strategy works but there are no hard numbers about how effective this is. If this strategy wasn’t used as much for a while, why is it returning now? I wonder if this is particularly prone to the overall state of the economy: if things are generally going well, these sorts of events look okay but in lean times, they look garish and suggest the wealthy are rubbing it in.

Odd final thought: could someone become a real estate party crasher if they know where these events are happening? Do you have to be vetted (income, wealth, credit, etc.) to be invited to such an event?

“America’s Ugly Mansions”

As this Forbes piece notes, “Money, after all, doesn’t buy taste.” See some of America’s ugliest mansions here:

“Everyone has opinions on other people’s houses,” says Sarah A. Leavitt, a curator with the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., which recently unveiled the exhibition House and Home, surveying how the American hearth, from two story colonials to row houses, has changed over the last 200 years. For some, their nightmarish take on someone else’s dream home may be “because they would have done it differently.” For others, the critique may be “because they can’t afford it.”

Most homes, after all–colonials, capes, ranches and splits, follow the same boxy patterns. Developers “have to appeal to the common denominator,” Leavitt says, leaving only those with deep pockets to tailor their own palaces.

One thing seems to unite these ugly homes: they have features or portions that are out of proportion with the rest of the house or with what people typically expect in homes. Take the Gas Station home. A portico is not necessarily a problem but one that extends over the driveway at a two-story height looks cartoonish. Or the Concrete Blocks house. Concrete can be effectively used in modern architecture but an elongated concrete garage looks like too much. Thus, if you have money and want a big house, try to have a design that has some moderation.

If you want to vote for which home you think if the worst, go here.