Do not dream of McMansions; picture really large houses and properties

Architectural Digest features images of 12 “extra-large properties.” Here is the introduction:

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There are few fantasies more persuasive or alluring than that of the expansive estate. When you think of big houses, your mind may immediately jump to the McMansions of yore, those garish homes you’d expect to see on an episode of MTV Cribs. The ones we can’t stop daydreaming about more closely resemble graceful, though still boldly luxurious, homes like the central property of Downton Abbey or the setting of Bodies, Bodies, Bodies before the horror film took a dark turn. Below we highlight 12 properties featured in AD that contain enviable amenities, from indoor tennis courts and home spas to guest houses and verdant gardens. 

Three features of this that struck me:

  1. Dreaming of McMansions exhibits poor taste. Dream bigger, more refined. Do not settle for the garish cookie-cutter version of a big house.
  2. The scale of these homes goes beyond the McMansion in numerous key ways. They are often far beyond the 3,000-5,000 square feet of a suburban McMansion. Some have much more square footage, others have numerous buildings. The properties are often much larger than the typical city or suburban lot. And the amenities are more plentiful and higher-end. Think special pools, gardens, and gathering spaces.
  3. The McMansion is much more attainable for people than the extra-large property. Does the McMansion offer enough of a taste of the high-end property?

When a McMansion feels more like an estate

Defining a McMansion is doable. But, at what point does a McMansion become an estate?

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He liked how certain details — the neighborhood of manses behind gates and shrouded with trees; the house’s circular drive and imposing view — gave the ordinary McMansion an estate feel. He eventually dotted the lawn with gargoyles and Renaissance-style statues.

In this example, a McMansion feels more like an estate when it has added levels of privacy (gates, lots of trees blocking views of houses), a particular kind of driveway, and a particular view. Presumably, normal McMansions do not have these features or have imitations of these features. The suburban subdivision of McMansions offers limited privacy. The straight driveway leads to a big garage. The view is not imposing.

Is there a market for upselling McMansions? Take your typical newer McMansion, whether in a new development or in a teardown setting. What small features would differentiate it from similar homes and translate to a higher value? At the same time, adding special touches to McMansions goes against the mass-produced image of such homes.

Are the boundaries between McMansion and estate different than those between McMansions and mansions? In this second comparison, the size of the home itself seems to matter. The McMansion is roughly 3,000 to 10,000 square feet while the McMansion is larger.

Is it about the home or the location of the home?

I recently saw this:

I think this is promoting living in the country as the person making the statement would be okay with a cabin rather than a mansion. The cabin looks like it is in decent shape, but it is no mansion.

However, this gets at a question I wonder about a lot: what exactly is it that motivates many people to select where they live? Here are several of the major factors:

-How many resources they have? What can they afford?

-What kind of neighborhood or community do they want to live in?

-Proximity to work.

-Quality of schools.

-Proximity to family.

-Preferences for kind and style of residence.

If you choose to live in a cabin in the country, you are elevating some of these factors as more important than others. But, is the choice primarily about the country and nature, the relative lack of people, the different kind of house, or something else? Reducing it to a binary choice of cabin/country versus city/mansion is simple but the decision might be much more complicated.

Kanye West does not like McMansions

I missed this information from two years ago; here is what Kanye West thinks about McMansions.

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The “YZY SHLRS” are not West’s first try at real estate development. Together with his wife Kim Kardashian West, the rapper transformed a McMansion in suburban Los Angeles into a cavernous, eclectic abode that has since unfolded on the covers of several esteemed magazines.

Earlier this year, Architectural Digest described the Wests’ residence as “one of the most fascinating, otherworldly, and, yes, strange pieces of domestic architecture on the planet.”

Characterized by clear, geometrical lines and white open spaces, filled with equally futuristic furniture, the home resembles a modern-day spin on a Belgian monastery, as West told AD.

The standout nature of the home, a reflection of West’s highly individualistic style, is not a surprise given the rapper’s annoyance with luxury properties that, despite their own embellishments, more often than not come off as the products of the same mold.

“The relationships that I have with architects, my understanding of sacred proportions, this new vibe, this new energy,” is what is driving West, the real estate developer. “I am tired of McMansions,” he told Charlamagne tha God. “That is wack. Everybody’s house is wack.”

His critique of McMansions and large homes is a common one: they are produced with similar features and styles. West hints that this is even the case at the level of home above McMansions where more resources does not necessarily translate into unique or quality homes. You can purchase a very expensive property and it may not be interesting or suit the particular needs of the residents.

At the same time, with his wealth and connections, West operates at a level beyond the typical McMansion owner. He has the resources to transform a large home based on a new vision. Mansion as monastery, as it were. He can pursue a particular plan and mold the home in ways that many McMansion owners cannot.

Now, if someone with fame and resources could help find a way to transform McMansions or relatively large houses (think 3,000-6,000 square feet) in the ways that West wants, this could help change the image of such homes. I imagine many McMansions owners would be interested in the idea of “sacred proportions” in their homes or differentiating their residences in significant ways from neighbors.

The growing $100+ million in debt for the most expensive home in Los Angeles

Subprime lending helped bring about the housing crisis of the late 2000s but it is also utilized by very wealthy actors, such as in the case of a home valued in the hundreds of millions:

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The first loan, which a source close to the project said also refinanced existing bank debt, was $82.5 million with a minimum interest rate of 11%. It included an agreement that should the house sell for more than $200 million, Hankey would get $3.5 million of the sale.

Niami came back a little over a year later and borrowed an additional $8.5 million at the same rate, paying a loan fee of $82,500. He also agreed to more onerous terms: giving Hankey a percentage of the profits if the house sold for $100 million to $200 million.

Two months before the loans were due, Niami came back for a third helping, and got an additional $15 million at the same interest rate. There were no changes to the profit-sharing arrangement, but this time the developer had to cough up a $1-million application fee.

The total: a whopping $106 million that Crestlloyd defaulted on when it all came due on Oct. 31, 2020 — and it’s growing with interest and penalties. But Hankey is not the only lender owed by Crestlloyd, according to a title report provided by the receiver.

There is a lot of money wrapped up in this house and it is unclear whether those involved will get what they hoped for. Almost regardless of what happens in the short-term, this house will live on in future memories because of its price-tag and location. Will it end up being a cautionary tale/disaster or an eventual success in a land of mega-mansions and wealthy residents?

Because this is one of the most expensive properties around, would the fallout from the subprime lending receive more attention or less attention compared to the consequences of subprime loans in the late 2000s? How long would it take to sort out debt and payments in court? While there are wealthy actors involved, a lot of money could be lost and even the wealthiest would feel a loss of $50-100 million on a single house.

Get a house that is zero-carbon over its lifetime…for $32 million in Malibu

It will take a little money to acquire the first zero-carbon home in California:

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The roughly 14,400-square-foot modern ranch-style house has all electric appliances and mechanical systems, and comes with an organic vegetable garden, orchard and apiary, according to marketing materials. In addition, the develop said it reduced carbon emissions during construction by using alternative building materials.

“This home will have zero [carbon] emissions throughout its lifetime,” said Scott Morris of Crown Pointe Estates, developer of the home. The average U.S. home emits 8.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data…

Until recently, developers have focused on reducing energy use in homes, but attention is expanding to include cutting embodied carbon, the greenhouse gases that are emitted during the manufacturing, transportation and disposal of building materials, said Cliff Majersik, a senior adviser at the Institute for Market Transformation, a Washington, D.C., think tank with public and private funding that promotes investment in low-energy building. If the developers rigorously reduced and measured embodied carbon, and offset the remaining carbon, it would be a “very impressive achievement,” he said.

According to Mr. Morris, Crown Pointe reduced the embodied carbon in this home’s construction by replacing 80,000 pounds of steel in the original home design for sustainable timber. It says it slashed its concrete usage by 14% by replacing a concrete-slab foundation with a crawl-space foundation. And rather than place a concrete subfloor beneath the wood and stone floors, it used a rubber underlay made from recycled tires. Around 25% of the concrete used is recycled, the developer said.

This is a cool feat and yet it is not exactly anything close to an average home. The irony here is that this zero-carbon home both costs so much – it is a luxury in a premium location to be zero-carbon – and it is such a big house – a reduced environmental footprint yet still taking up a lot of land and having a quintessentially American square footage. Does this make being zero-carbon a status symbol?

How long until this kind of home is within reach of more homeowners? Some of this technology would be possible in much smaller homes but it could still be costly to eliminate carbon from all the other materials.

Touring the most expensive American homes on YouTube

There is an appetite for seeing the homes of the rich and famous. See the popularity of showing these homes on YouTube:

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Mr. Yilmazer, 31, isn’t a wealthy buyer, nor is he currently a real-estate agent. Rather, he is one of a handful of real-estate YouTubers, amateur video hosts and producers, who are bringing regular people, via their laptops or cellphones, inside the mansions of the megarich. With more than 820,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, Mr. Yilmazer’s videos rack up millions of views and inspire tens of thousands of comments…

In some ways, real-estate YouTubers like Mr. Yilmazer are providing today’s answer to the MTV Cribs phenomenon of the early 2000s, offering the masses a rare glimpse at how the 0.1% really live. But rather than getting a peak through the eyes of a movie star or a suave celebrity real-estate agent, like on shows such as Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” they’re seeing these houses through the eyes of a regular guy just like them…

Mr. Yilmazer said he is bringing in between $50,000 and $100,000 a month in revenue from his YouTube channel in ad revenue alone, putting him on track to bring in more than $1 million this year if the growth of his channel continues at its current pace. Those are just the revenues provided by YouTube for allowing their automated ads to stream on the channel without any effort from Mr. Yilmazer’s own small team. On top of that, he and his team can make money from dedicated sponsorships—Mr. Yilmazer will personally feature a particular company’s brand in his videos for a fee that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars—and the money real-estate agents offer him to feature their listings on his channel. He said he often won’t charge if a property is particularly spectacular and will drive viewership to his channel. If a property is less impressive, he charges a fee, which typically runs into the five figures…

Still, not everyone is sold on letting YouTubers have free rein in their properties, since some agents believe that prospective buyers would prefer that their future homes not be splashed all over the internet.

It is the Internet, expensive real estate, and making money all in one. What could more American than that in 2021?

The money angle is very interesting to consider. The owner of the big expensive home could benefit from more exposure (though the article notes that not all big home owners think the YouTube views benefits them). YouTube gets original content that plenty of viewers want and they can monetize the content through advertising. The presenter can develop a brand and bring in a good income. Does anyone lose here?

One potential downside: how Americans view homes. If people consistently see large luxurious homes on television, as sociologist Juliet Schor argues in The Overspent American, or on social media, does this ratchet up their expectations about what they should be able to acquire? The biggest homes are out of the reach of almost everyone yet some of the individual pieces or features might find their way to a more attainable range.

Seeing into the megamansions of celebrities

The wealthy often live in large and lavish houses. Today, we have more access to some of these houses and the lives lived inside because the homes are part of what it means to be a celebrity:

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Sprawling celebrity homes exist across North America – like Drake’s 50,000 square foot Toronto mansion that’s large enough to house a regulation NBA basketball court (and does); John Travolta’s Ocala, Florida, property that makes up for its modest 6,500 square footage with two private airplane runways that lead straight to his front door; or Taylor Swift’s 11,000 square foot beachfront Rhode Island estate, which she immortalized in song-but the epicenter of celebrity real estate has always been Los Angeles. And homes there are only getting larger and more extravagant…

“American culture, to begin with, is unusually spacious, in the sense that people think of space as part of American culture,” Sonia A. Hirt, a professor of landscape architecture and planning, told The Atlantic in 2019. “This is partially part of the American promise-that you can have more room.”

But in the age of COVID-19, witnessing celebrities cloister inside their obscenely large houses and pander with “Imagine” sing-alongs can provide new reasons to scoff at their out-of-touch lifestyles. “Seeing celebrity homes [in 2020] took on new meaning in a potentially negative way,” said Andreas McDonnell, co-author of Celebrity: A History of Fame. “The pleasure of voyeurism was overshadowed by those feelings of resentment by regular people who are going through a really difficult time and are also confined to the home a lot more”…

As Instagram Lives and Zoom interviews allowed a more unfiltered look inside celebrities’ daily activities at home, the New York Times speculated that 2020 would bring about “the swift dismantling of celebrity culture.” But it’s unlikely they’ll stop buying insanely large homes any time soon. Luxury home sales surged nationwide in 2020, and Oppenheim noted that L.A. buyers have been eager to shed properties in cluttered, central neighborhoods like West Hollywood and seek more space and privacy further afield.

Homes are part of a package of conspicuous consumption: people with means can buy and do things in ways that others cannot and they can also display that to the world. A celebrity living a modest life may not get as much attention as someone flouting their purchases and lifestyle.A big house in a particular location denotes money, status, an interest in living near other elites. With social media and reality TV, part of being a celebrity today is inviting people into your life in more intimate ways. Through different mediums, observers can see the home and household. Yet, this leads to different expectations from viewers who have the opportunity to comment and critique.

Along similar lines, inviting people to see your home is a different kind of celebrity or status than an ability to stay out of the public view and not be observed. Some powerful or famous actors prefer to stay out of the limelight and physical residences are part of this. Perhaps it involves never allowing cameras inside their large home. Perhaps it means finding a home that is secluded and away from public attention, whether the house has gates and security or the residence is a unit in a high-rise that very few people can enter. Celebrity can bring the option of keeping the world out to a certain degree or inviting the world in, including into their home, in a way that very few people could.

Is there a connection then between seeing a celebrity megamansion and wanting something similar? It is one thing to observe the homes of celebrities. It is another then to act on acquiring a larger home and the life that goes with it. If Americans do see celebrities and others in media as reference groups, people with whom they compare their lives, then the megamansions might not just be fun; it may be part of a larger system that Hirt references where people expect that a higher status equals a bigger house.

Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

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He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

Houses and locations from TV shows can draw visitors

To follow up on yesterday’s post regarding the importance of the English manor to Downton Abbey, some more on the popularity of the home:

When the Downton Abbey producers first approached Highclere in 2009, the family faced a near £12m repair bill, with urgent work priced at £1.8m. But by 2012 the Downton effect had begun to take the pressure off. Lord Carnarvon said then: “It was just after the banking crisis and it was gloom in all directions. We had been doing corporate functions, but it all became pretty sparse after that. Then Downton came along and it became a major tourist attraction.”

Visitor numbers doubled, to 1,200 a day, as Downton Abbey, scripted by Julian Fellowes, came to be screened around the world after becoming a hit in the UK in 2010 and then in the US. It is now broadcast in 250 countries…

VisitBritain’s director, Patricia Yates, said: “The links between tourism, films and TV are potent ones.” She added that period dramas have also raised the popularity of regions outside of London.

Keeping an older house maintained and running is an expensive task. Tourism spurred by television or film can help some locations stay afloat even as dozens of other homes languish. More broadly, when I studied the primary home on The Sopranos, I ran into stories of Sopranos tours and merchandise that utilized the show’s New Jersey locations. A Simpsons home outside Las Vegas has attracted visitors even as the home has remained as a private residence. Fixer Upper helped bring people to Waco, Texas. Some shows do indeed seem to spur tourism.

On the other hand, visiting the locations and homes of other shows would prove disappointing. Many television homes, such as the residence of the Brady family on The Brady Bunch, do not match the actual home even if the exterior is recognizable. Numerous shows use establishing shots of real locations and then the filming takes place on soundstages and backlots. For example, a tour of New York City based on Friends makes little sense since most of the action took place inside fictional locations (though the 25th anniversary pop-up location in New York City is sure to attract visitors). On a tour of the Warner Brothers backlot, I saw Wisteria Lane and part of Stars Hollow; in both cases, knowing that this was not a real place changed how I later perceived the shows.

In a world where cities and places chase tourists, television shows that use that location and become popular can be a boon because there is little a community has to do with it. What exactly those tourists expect to get – perhaps a little closer to the on-screen characters? to drink in the mystique of the entertainment industry? – is another matter entirely.