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.

Is the Biltmore Estate “the original McMansion”? No

One TripAdvisor reviewer suggests the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Caroline was “the original McMansion”:

At first we were a little surprised at the price of admission but after all was said and done, definitely worth it. It is really an all day project. The tour through the house itself is kind of a slow line through but you do get to see a significant portion of the house, actually you see rooms on all 4 floors. It took us about 90 minutes to go through. Then there are the gardens which are very extensive. There were other tours one could take like a ‘behind the scenes tour’ which seemed really interesting but alas we had run out of time. Our lunch at the Stable Cafe was superb. At the height of the lunch rush we had a 45 minute wait so we went off to some of the nearer gardens for a half hour or so. The setting is literally what used to be the stable and the old horse stalls are booths now. The rotisserie chicken that I ordered is about the best chicken I can ever remember. Juicy, flavorful, cooked to perfection. Sometimes simple is best. And served quickly no less. We commented on that to the waiter who said, We know you have better things to do.

Visited October 2014

From all accounts, this sounds like a flashy and impressive house. Here is the opening description from Wikipedia:

Biltmore Estate is a large private estate and tourist attraction in Asheville, North Carolina. Biltmore House, the main house on the estate, is a Châteauesque-styled mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 and is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2) of floor space (135,280 square feet (12,568 m2) of living area) and featuring 250 rooms. Still owned by one of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it stands today as one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age, and of significant gardens in the jardin à la française and English Landscape garden styles in the United States. In 2007, it was ranked eighth in America’s Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.

This sounds like a classic case of (1) an anachronistic application of the term McMansion as well as (2) an instance where this is clearly a mansion. When it was built or today, the home is simply large – McMansions are often roughly 3,000 to 8,000 square feet and this home has 135,000 square feet of living space – and this wasn’t just some new money but real big money from the Vanderbilt family.

Perhaps the home’s most McMansion like feature is its borrowing of architectural styles with French and English gardens alongside French architecture. Here is Wikipedia’s brief description of the estate’s architecture:

Vanderbilt’s idea was to replicate the working estates of Europe. He commissioned prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had previously designed houses for various Vanderbilt family members, to design the house in the Châteauesque style, using several Loire Valley French Renaissance architecture chateaux, including the Chateau de Blois, as models. The estate included its own village, today named Biltmore Village, and a church, today known as the Cathedral of All Souls.

Vanderbilt borrowed the imposing and monied architecture of Europe to convey similar ideas in the United States. Yet, over a century later, the home’s architecture is celebrated.

My conclusion? The Biltmore Estate is nowhere close to being a McMansion.

What happens to “hipsturbia” when the wealthy start building 30,000 square foot homes?

The “hipsturbia” of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York may never be the same with the pending construction of a 30,000 square foot home:

In this comfortable Westchester County community, many residents like to think of their village as the anti-suburb, jokingly calling it the Upper Upper West Side.

With painters, writers, jazz musicians and web designers liberally represented among the population of 8,000, the village displays an arty, slightly irreverent ethos. Subarus with bumper stickers that say “Make Dinner, Not War” outnumber the BMWs with vanity plates. Teenage rock groups are overshadowed by their parents’ bands; Housewives on Prozac is a local favorite. Residents are more likely to play down their wealth than to flaunt it.

So it came as a surprise when residents learned that a house was rising in their midst that was not only over the top for Hastings, but also called for superlatives even for Westchester, one of the richest counties in the entire nation.

The contemporary structure and accompanying pool house together measure more than 30,000 square feet. The underground garage is 3,572 square feet, larger than most of the Tudors and Colonials in town. On the application for a building permit, the construction costs were estimated at more than $40 million.

Maybe we could think of waves of gentrification: hipsters and creative types (think Richard Florida’s “creative class”) can represent a first wave that is willing to move into edgier (grittier, more authentic, cheaper) areas. However, what happens when these increasingly wealthy and educated areas start to attract the uber-wealthy? How does that big money fit with certain hipster values? The article ends by noting that the wealthy couple are Democratic and the big home features alternative energy, so perhaps it is less about money than it is about having the right progressive values. Big homes might be okay as long as the owners have the right morality about such homes.

The other interesting dynamic is that this all is taking place in a suburban setting, specifically in wealthy Westchester County. Hastings-on-Hudson is fairly suburban in its demographics: 85.2% white, the median household income is over $114,000 (the US median is around $50,000), and over 66% of adults have bachelor’s degrees. In other words, this suburban location may be hipsterish but it is certainly not that diverse in terms of race or social class.

Super rich investing billions in office blocks, hotels

The global super rich are spending money beyond the dreams of average people on certain kinds of real estate:

The world’s super rich are turning from luxury mansions to hotels and office blocks, as they hunt for bigger property deals to preserve their growing fortunes which hit a combined $20 trillion in 2013, data showed on Wednesday.

The move into commercial property comes as wealth levels rebound after the financial crisis and home values in London and Monaco soar, prompting the rich to look for riskier investments that offer higher returns than gold or bonds.

Wealthy individuals spent $11.2 billion on hotels, offices, warehouses and shops globally in 2013, up from $7 billion in 2012 and three times the amount spent in 2008 after the crash, data compiled for Reuters by research group Real Capital Analytics (RCA) showed.

Such high net worth investors, most of whom come from Asia or the Middle East and made their fortunes in manufacturing among other sectors, often already own homes in cities such as London and Hong Kong, said Jeremy Waters, head of international investment at UK-based property consultants Knight Frank.

This is quite a flow of money. It is too bad the article doesn’t talk about the ROI on these office and hotel properties; what kind of investment can be expected in today’s economy?

I wonder if this means there just aren’t many luxury homes left in the world for the super rich. If so, this could mean builders will look for even bigger and more luxurious homes in the near future.

New York City seeing a rise in super-rich mansions (not McMansions)

Curbed highlights a Gizmodo story about “McMansions” in New York City – and both get it wrong as these new homes are far beyond McMansions:

But developers may be reaching a breaking point in Manhattan, where warehouses are being bought to build $100 million single-family homes.

A handful of real estate stories this week question whether NYC is reaching peak development. First off, we have a mind-boggling report about the rise of single-family “palaces” in Manhattan. According to the New York Times, the super-rich are buying up warehouses, parking garages, and other commercial buildings to turn them into gigantic McMansion-style homes (including what will soon become the largest single-family home in the city). According to one broker, the new “benchmark” price is going to be $100 million, as opposed to the almost austere $50 million buyers expected to pay a few years ago.

It’s one thing to get rid of warehouses and garages—but another set of trend pieces alert us of a more problematic trend: The disappearance of gas stations in the city. As developers strive to find new plots of land that can be rebuilt from the ground up, they’re buying up gas stations left and right. We’ve covered at least one of these developments before, but according to the NYT and the Village Voice, it’s becoming a problem for cab drivers who can’t always find a station in time.

Note: the New York Times article cited above which starts with the story of a new 40,000 square foot home does not use the term McMansion. Calling them McMansions is just wrong; these are unusually large and expensive homes that go far beyond the typical, mass-produced, large suburban home.

More on these new homes from the New York Times:

“The town-house buyer doesn’t want a multi-unit condominium that is mass-produced,” said Wendy Maitland, a senior managing director of sales at Town Residential, who just closed a deal on a town house at 45 East 74th Street for $26 million. “This is an entirely private home, built for the lifestyle of someone who has multiple staff, a private driver. These people do not need a doorman, and they aren’t sharing amenities.”

Such buyers don’t exactly need a discount, but the value of private homes compared with condominiums is a draw anyway. “There is a gap in the marketplace — mansions are an area that is undervalued,” said Louis Buckworth, a broker at the Corcoran Group. He recently represented the British real estate magnate Christian Candy in buying a $35 million 30-foot-wide mansion for his family on the Upper East Side. (“Mansion” is typically defined as a town house at least 25 feet wide.) Mr. Candy’s new home, at 17,000 square feet, cost less than $2,100 a square foot. Meanwhile, “an 11,000-square-foot apartment at One57,” said Mr. Buckworth, referring to the glass tower in Midtown that Extell Development is building, “sold for $10,000 a square foot, making what we paid a joke.”

McMansion owners may want similar things – privacy, more space – but these homes are a step above.

Interestingly, even with their size and price, they tend to compare favorably to expensive homes in other global cities:

And for many buyers — especially foreigners who see real estate as more affordable in New York than in cities like London or Hong Kong — the numbers are eye-catching. Mr. Candy, for example, just sold a $250 million apartment in London and a $400 million home in Monaco, Mr. Buckworth said. “So as a foreigner, you say to yourself: ‘I can spend £20 million for an average-size flat in London, or get a mansion in prime Manhattan.’ And you can see why these numbers aren’t going to be particularly scary.”

So instead of pitching the story on Curbed and Gizmodo as the excesses of the American wealthy in New York City, this could be told as a story of relative value for big homes in a major global city. Same data, different contexts and narratives. Just bringing up the word McMansion implies selfish owners out to live in ostentatious homes.

Curbed’s “Whale Week” highlights wealthiest landowners in the world

If you missed it, last week Curbed.com highlighted the world’s wealthiest landowners. Here were the five people featured during “Whale Week”:

At a spry 26 years of age, movie producer Megan Ellison might have been forgiven for moving back into one of her billionaire father’s many homes and whiling away her days on the beaches of his $500M private Hawaiian island or in a temple on his $100M Japanese-inspired Bay Area estate. Instead, she has carved out a professional niche as a backer of high-brow films, using—unsurprisingly—seed money from dad. While she was accumulating producer credits on films like The Master, True Grit, and Zero Dark Thirty, Ellison was also busy buying up prime property…

Brainy corporate raider John Malone might not be a household name, but he made a killing in the media industry and parlayed that fortune into his position as America’s largest landowner. Following a 2011 purchase of more than 1,000,000 acres of timberland in Maine and New Hampshire, Malone’s property portfolio now includes a whopping 2,200,000 acres. As the Daily Mail put it, “the total sum of Mr Malone’s land is nearly three Rhode Islands. Or two Delawares.” The low-profile Malone won’t say how much he paid for the latest million-acre addition, saying only that it was purchased for a “fair price,” but with a $4.5B net worth, the media mogul should have plenty of cash left over for further acquisitions…

Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone turned a grassroots auto racing series into one of the world’s most watched sports, and made billions in the process. Now, when the time comes to spend some of that hard-earned wealth, he can afford some of the world’s most expensive real estate. But he doesn’t keep all the fun for himself, and has repeatedly splashed out to keep his two daughters, Petra and Tamara, ensconced in the height of luxury…

Boyish telecom mogul turned property whale Michael Hirtenstein may not be a household name, in fact, few outside of the NYC nightlife world have ever heard his name, but he has been behind more than a few high-end real estate deals. Since selling his start-up, Westcom Communications, for $270M in 2005, Hirtenstein has been linked to some of New York’s most coveted buildings, and not always positively. In October of last year, Extell Development’s Gary Barnett claimed that he had canceled Hirtenstein’s contract on a high-floor unit at the unfinished blockbuster One 57 after the Hirt paid a construction worker to snap pictures from his unfinished sky-high flat. Hirtenstein told the Post, “You want me to spend $16 million without seeing it? … All I was trying to do was be an informed, intelligent buyer. Apparently, that doesn’t sit well with Mr. Barnett. That’s not nice.”…

Of all the rich Russians to emerge from the post-Cold War turmoil, Roman Abramovich isn’t the wealthiest, but he is among the most publicly profligate. Between Chelsea F.C., the top British soccer club he acquired in 2003 for $220M, a huge art collection, a veritable fleet of yachts, and a host of luxury properties spread across the world, Abramovich is probably the ultimate whale. The 46-year-old who started off selling stolen gasoline under Soviet rule now commands a property portfolio that would make even an Ellison blush.

I’ve highlighted John Malone before but I suspect most Americans are not aware of the property held by these people. If they do know these people, it is because they cross over into other areas of life like sports or Hollywood. I propose a few reasons why we don’t hear more about the property ownership of these five:

1. Their properties are exclusive and generally out of the public eye. It is intentional that most people won’t get anywhere near some of these properties.

2. Perhaps having these kinds of properties or this much land is simply seen as obscene or excessive. With the example of Malone, what does one do with 2.2 million acres? Does anybody need this kind of land or house? McMansions are derided but they are relatively common (particularly emphasized with the Mc- prefix) and this might leave them more open for discussion.

3. Owning a lot or expensive land is simply not very interesting to people in a world of celebrity news and entertainment culture. Land is more permanent and inaccessible and lacks novelty.

Upcoming film about a unconstructed 90,000 square foot mansion

I’ve seen several references to the film The Queen of Versailles which comes out later this summer. Here is what the movie is about:

A Florida real-estate tycoon and his appealing, immensely flawed wife try to build the country’s biggest McMansion in photographer-turned-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, which is stranger than any work of fiction. Surrounded by controversy since well before its Sundance premiere (when subject David Siegel tried to sue the festival), “Queen of Versailles” veers from profound human compassion to domestic horror as Siegel’s wife Jackie wanders through her enormous but trashed home scraping dog crap off the carpets. It’s like a Theodore Dreiser novel for our time, infused with the vivid, vulgar spirit of reality TV. (Opens in theaters July 20; VOD release is likely but has not been announced.)

There is one problem with this: the home at the center of this film is not just a regular American McMansion.

At 90,000 square feet, it will be America’s largest single residence, boasting ten kitchens, a private ice-skating rink, and enough tacky antiques to make Michael Jackson blush. It’s telling that while the couple’s dream house was inspired by the famed palace, it was most directly modeled on a Las Vegas theme-park imitation of French grandeur.

A home that is 90,000 square feet is far beyond a McMansion. There are not many homes in the United States that are 90,000 square feet so it is difficult to argue that this home is mass produced. The home is named “Versailles,” referring not to some builder’s model but rather the well-known French palace. The home may be tacky and not have a lot of architectural merit but this is home is way beyond the size of anything that can be reasonably called a McMansion.

In reading several early reviews of this film, it seems like critics think this film is about more than just the vanity of a few wealthy people: the uncompleted mansion serves as a metaphor for the excesses of the early 2000s.