Need a break from the craziness of work? Looking for some conversation starters for your next cocktail party? The Close has you covered with 35 outrageous (but true!) real estate facts that’ll brighten your day and impress your friends.
1. San Francisco Is a City Built on Ships
During the California Gold Rush, hopeful prospectors sailed to California from all around the world. Once they arrived, many sailors, and even captains, abandoned their ships with hopes of striking it rich in the goldfields.
Because real estate in San Francisco was at a premium (even back then!), the ships were repurposed as jails, houses, or hotels. Some rotted and sank in the harbor or burned in the fire of 1851. Enterprising speculators just continued building, right on top of the sunken ships.
When digging tunnels for the Bay Area light rail in 1994, crews discovered a fully intact ship, The Rome. Too big to dislodge, they just kept tunneling, which means the J, K, L, M, N, and T trains travel right through its hull. An estimated 70 ships lie buried under some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
2. Eagles May Symbolize Freedom From Monthly Payments
There are many ways that homeowners used to celebrate the full payment of their mortgage, including the “house warming” explained in number 27. But one of the more popular (and deeply American) ways was to put a cast iron eagle on the outside of a home. This announced to the world that the house was owned free and clear and that the owner was free from mortgage payments!
3. We Really Don’t Build Them Like They Used To
Castles remain some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and the most famous ones would cost a staggering amount to recreate today. For example, the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris would cost an estimated $200 billion to $300 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, would cost $157.2 million, and Hearst Castle in California would be $750 million to build.
4. Many NYC Gilded Age Mansions Didn’t Last 50 Years
Fifth Avenue was one of the grandest addresses in the entire world in the 1890s. Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors outbid and outbuilt each other, creating massive mansions that were not only excessively expensive to build, but crazy expensive to maintain.
By the 1920s, many were already being torn down. Between taxes, servants, and upkeep, it could cost $5 million a year to run a mansion in New York.
In 1925, Alice Vanderbilt sold her mansion, the largest private home in Manhattan, for $6.1 million ($83.2 million in today’s dollars). The land was put to good use, though, as the house was demolished to make way for Bergdorf Goodman.
5. The Smallest House in GB Is Just 72 Inches Wide
Located in Conwy, Wales, the smallest house in Great Britain is known as Y Tŷ Lleiaf ym Mhrydain Fawr, or the Quay House. It measures 72 inches across, 122 inches high, and 120 inches deep. It was built in the 16th century and despite its size, was home to numerous families throughout the generations.
The most recent occupant was a fisherman named Robert Jones, who bought it in 1891 for £20 (about 27 U.S. dollars). He lived there happily for many years, despite being 6’ 3” tall.
When the local council condemned the home, considering it to be uninhabitable, Jones protested by traveling the country, measuring homes to ensure that his was, in fact, the smallest in Great Britain. By officially affirming this superlative, he saved his home, which is still a tourist destination.
6. Teddy Roosevelt Officially Named The White House
Generations of Presidents called The White House home, but they didn’t officially call it The White House. Instead, they called it the Executive Residence, Executive Mansion, or the People’s House.
None of these have the same Presidential ring as The White House, so it was Theodore Roosevelt who decided to make The White House official. It is repainted every four to six years to keep it that symbolic white, which requires a staggering 570 gallons of paint!
7. You Can Stay in a Lighthouse in the Middle of the Ocean
Frying Pan Shoals have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives off the southeastern coast of North Carolina. A light tower was finally built 1966, but was decommissioned by 2004 as technology made it obsolete.
A fellow named Richard Neal purchased the tower from a government auction for $85,000 and turned it into Frying Pan Shoals Tower, a bed and breakfast. Arrive by helicopter and spend your time deep-sea fishing off the wraparound walkways.
As the government continues to decommission lighthouses and towers, there are a number of lighthouses one can buy, so keep an eye on those government auctions.
8. This Old House Started the DIY Craze in the 1970s
Today, This Old House is one of the most popular renovation shows in the world and can claim the honor of having started it all. While there was skepticism back in its early days about how many people would tune in to see plumbers and electricians doing their thing, it turns out that American audiences do care about how to properly refinish historic floorboards and will tune in to watch.
9. Open Houses Used to Last for 12 Long Hours
The first realtors were called “curbstoners,” and they were pretty much hustlers. When a house was for sale, they would rush over, put up a big sign, and sit on the curb in front of the house from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., ushering prospective buyers in for an “inspection.” The competition was fierce and it sometimes got ugly. It also limited each realtor to selling just one house at a time.
As the profession became more organized and agencies grew, they could take on more listings. Instead of having a 12-hour “inspection” period, the industry shifted to a two- or three-hour open house. The first record of an open house offering incentives was in 1952, when an agent in Dallas, Texas, offered free Coca-Cola to attendees and a Cadillac to whomever purchased the property.
10. John Travolta’s Driveway Is Really a Runway
Not only is John Travolta an accomplished actor with serious dance moves, he is also a certified private pilot. It was always his dream to live in a place where he could pull his plane right up to the house, and he made that dream come true with his house in Jumbolair Aviation Estates, just outside Ocala, Florida.
There, Travolta is surrounded by runways (including the largest private runway in the U.S.) and fellow aviation enthusiasts. For a while, he had a giant Boeing 707 parked in his driveway (runway?). He’s since donated that aircraft, but his passion for planes and flying continues —right from his front yard.
11. The Phrase ‘Making the Bed’ Used To Be Quite Literal
Bill Bryson’s fascinating history, “At Home, A Short History of Private Life,” has hundreds of interesting facts about how we have evolved to our current patterns of domestic life. Our favorite is about one of our most commonly used phrases (especially when planning an open house), “make the bed.”
In the middle ages in England, people would gather and sleep in a great hall or living area in their homes. Private bedrooms weren’t a thing yet, except for very wealthy landowners who might enjoy private sleeping quarters in their castle.
The main hall or room served many purposes, so beds would have to be constructed every night out of straw or horsehair pallets, and picked up every day.
12. Real Estate Wire Fraud Caused Losses of $213 Million+
Wire fraud is one of the most prevalent cybercrimes we face today, and 2020 was one of the worst years for it. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), 13,638 Americans fell victim to wire fraud in both real estate sales and rental transactions — an astounding 17% increase over 2019. There are even predictions that cyberattacks and scams will double by 2025.
To learn more about how wire fraud happens and how to prevent it, watch our video about the top five real estate scams so you can protect yourself from them.
13. A Secret Apartment Sits Atop the Eiffel Tower
As a part of his commission for the design and construction of the most famous Parisian landmark, Gustov Eiffel built and maintained ownership of a secret, 1,000-square-foot apartment near the top of the Eiffel Tower.
French aristocrats, international VIPs, and even royalty frequently offered Eiffel more than $1,000 (equivalent to over 25,000 U.S. dollars today) for a chance to spend just one night in the most exclusive apartment in France.
While he never rented the space to anyone, he did occasionally entertain “thinkers and artists who inspired the world”—including Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (on separate evenings, of course—it’s a pretty small pad).
14. It’s Illegal to Keep An Alligator in Your Tub in Arkansas
Legislators seem to really want to restrict what homeowners can do with their bathrooms. Of course, every state has strange, inexplicable laws still on the books, but did you know it’s illegal to have a donkey in your bathtub in Brooklyn or to keep an ‘gator in your tub in Arkansas? And forget about keeping your horse in a bathtub in South Carolina.
You’d be surprised to learn you can’t bathe after 10 p.m. in Piqua, Ohio, and you must be fully clothed to take a bath in Portland, Oregon.
At least in most places, you can have a bathtub in your house. It’s technically still illegal in Virginia.
15. Barns Are Traditionally Red for a Reason
Farmhouses and barns across America are traditionally red, but that’s not by accident. Farmers, ever a thrifty bunch, experimented to find cheap ways to make paint. They used what they had on hand: lime, milk, and red iron oxide (what we commonly call rust) and mixed it all together. Voila, they made a nice red paint—and at a bargain!
16. Secret Oil Rigs Are Hidden in Downtown Los Angeles
It’s no secret that there’s oil in them-there California hills, and evidently, downtown Los Angeles is no exception. There are secret office towers and industrial buildings in this southern California mecca that house massive oil drilling operations. One installation outside of The Grove shopping center has produced close to 20 million barrels of oil as of 2009.
17. Canada & Denmark Are Disputing Some Vacant Property
Canada and Denmark have a pretty long-running dispute over a piece of vacant land that is technically in water controlled by Denmark. Still, Canada also has a legitimate claim to it.
The two countries maintain a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing. Denmark naval officers will occasionally visit the island and leave a Danish flag with a bottle of Danish brandy. Some months later, a Canadian naval vessel will stop by, leave a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey, and replace the Danish flag with a Canadian flag.
18. A Lucky Winner Received a Replica of the Simpsons’ House
In 1997, Pepsi and FOX ran a contest that offered a grand prize of a full-sized, habitable, accurate-down-to-the-furniture version of the Simpson’s house. The winner of the contest could take the home or $75,000 cash, and tragically, they opted for cash instead.
But, the house existed. Architects, interior designers, furniture makers, and about a dozen other professionals were said to have gathered in a Las Vegas ballroom for weeks (the home was built in nearby Henderson, Nevada) and watched over 100 episodes of the Simpsons together to get the details just right.
19. Fairytale Mushroom Houses Really Do Exist
We know this looks like a set piece from “Lord of the Rings,” but this (and about two dozen others like it) are real homes you can rent on Airbnb in beautiful Charlevoix, Michigan. The homes were built by Northern Michigan native, Earl Young, and constructed mainly from stone and boulders from Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix.
20. It’s Bad Luck to Give a Knife as a Housewarming Gift
Superstition says that if you give a knife as a gift, you risk severing the friendship. The best way to give a knife as a housewarming gift is to tape a penny to the blade. This way, the recipient can take off the penny and hand it back to the giver. That way, they’re paying you for the knife, and it’s not technically a gift!
21. People Are Finding Hidden Rooms on TikTok
These stories are so incredible we wouldn’t believe them if we didn’t see them on TikTok. Secret rooms seem to be everywhere—and we are captivated. From a room behind a medicine cabinet in New York to hidden attics and basements, these clips are creepy and crazy. We can’t stop watching—and wondering what’s behind our walls.
22. Mark Zuckerberg Reportedly Owns Almost .5% of Kauai
Maybe Mark Zuckerberg just likes his privacy, but he certainly likes real estate. He and his wife, Pricilla Chan, are slowly accumulating over a thousand acres on the island of Kauai. In 2014, he reportedly spent over $100 million for 700 acres and added another 600 acres (for a cool $53 million) in 2021.
This property adds to his already impressive portfolio that includes a $7 million home in Palo Alto (plus the four he bought surrounding it), a townhouse in San Francisco, and his compound in Lake Tahoe, worth $57 million.
23. You Can Stay in Luke Skywalker’s Boyhood Home
The next time you’re passing through Matmata, Tunisia, and need a place to crash for the night, make sure to check out Hotel Sidi Driss. This location, from the original “Star Wars: A New Hope,” is hallowed ground for many of us nerds here at The Close, and you don’t even need to speak Bocci to book a room here.
Yes, you can sleep in Luke Skywalker’s house for as little as ten bucks a night. Just watch out for Jawwas.
24. A Canadian Company Owns The Mall of America
The largest mall in the United States, the Mall of America, is not American-owned. It’s owned by the Triple Five Group, a real estate conglomerate based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It also has its own ZIP code (55425). As of right now, there are no plans to replace the mall cops with Mounties or Starbucks with Tim Hortons, but if that changes, we’ll (politely) let you know.
25. NY’s Most Iconic Tower Sat Empty
Construction on the Empire State Building finished in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, and as a result, immediate occupancy rates were startlingly low. In fact, in the first year that the building was open, only 23% of it was occupied, leading many New Yorkers to nickname it the “Empty Space Building.”
26. The Great Pyramids Are in the Suburbs of Cairo
When most people think of the Great Pyramids, they think of a mystical oasis accessible only by a journey across endless oceans of sand—on a camel. The reality is the city of Cairo has expanded so rapidly in the last 10 years that it is practically on top of this ancient site.
After college, my wife took a trip around the world, including spending a few days in Cairo. She told me that while sitting in a Kentucky Fried Chicken, she could practically throw a rock and hit the Pyramids of Giza. When I asked what she was doing in a KFC in Egypt, she declined to answer.
27. Housewarmings Come From Burning Mortgage Paperwork
In the early days of the mortgage, interest rates were pretty high (sometimes up to 15% or 20%), and the loans would often culminate with a “balloon payment,” similar in size to today’s downpayment. This made paying off a mortgage an even more momentous occasion, and homeowners would celebrate by throwing a big party and burning their mortgage documents.
Guests would bring gifts to help commemorate the home being owned free and clear, and this tradition has since evolved into what we now know as the housewarming party.
28. The Empire State Building Makes More Money From Ticket Sales Than Rent
Even before 2020 and the seismic shift in commercial real estate and work-from-anywhere economy, the Empire State Building wasn’t making much money from commercial rent. In fact, it’s estimated that about 70% of the building’s operating revenue comes from ticket sales to its observation decks.
If you’re not afraid of heights (or you loved “Sleepless in Seattle“), visit the open-air observation deck on the 86th floor. There’s also an indoor deck on the 102nd floor where on a clear day, you can see for 80 miles. Book the All-Access tour and get a champagne toast thrown in!
29. Expensive Real Estate Markets You Never Saw Coming
In 2010, the average sale price for a single-family home was over $6 million in Aspen, Colorado. The lowest-priced single-family home to sell in 2010 was a single-wide trailer in a trailer park with no land included for $559,000.
The 2020s have equally stunning price spikes—some more surprising than others. California, of course, has six of the 10 most expensive ZIP codes, with Atherton, California, leading the nation (Steph Curry lives there, sports fans). And for the first time ever, in 2021, metropolitan New York ZIP codes are not on that list.
But it was tiny Gibson Island, Maryland, that saw the biggest gain in 2021. Home prices soared 97%, and the island is number 23 on the list of most expensive ZIP codes.
30. The U.S. Supreme Court Is Very Well Appointed
Supreme Court judges are appointed for life, and many end up spending a significant amount of their time in the Supreme Court building, which makes it essential that they have all the amenities they need.
Though most of the newsworthy action of the Supreme Court happens on the first floor, up on the fourth and fifth floors, there are offices, study rooms, sleeping quarters, a fully appointed workout facility, and a full-sized basketball court, affectionately nicknamed “The Highest Court in the Land.”
31. Hollywood Was Originally a Real Estate Promotion
Lights! Camera! Mortgage pre-approvals!
The iconic Hollywood sign built into the side of Mount Lee has gone through a couple of iterations over the years, but the original intent of the sign was to promote the sale of homes and property.
According to the L.A. Times in 1923, the area would provide “… a clean, healthful atmosphere and beautiful outlook of the (Hollywood) Hills.” Hollywoodland was said to be “above the turmoil of the city,” and “the supreme achievement in community building.”
32. Russia Sold Alaska to the U.S. for $.02 per Acre
The United States bought the 375 million acres we now call Alaska from Russia in 1876 for $7.2 million, or about $126.5 million in today’s market. Though the Alaska Purchase Treaty certainly provided some upside to Russia at the time, the U.S. has come out a huge financial winner in the deal thanks to the massive oil deposits discovered in the 49th state in 1967.
33. Sears Used to Sell Mail-order Homes
If you think that Amazon is the pioneer of purchase-and-ship products, you’re forgetting about the mail-order catalog giant Sears & Roebuck of the early 20th century. You could buy just about anything through their giant catalogues, including a surprisingly large selection of homes.
These homes would be delivered to your address in the form of materials, instructions, and sometimes even tools. Sears bragged that, “Any man of reasonable strength, size, and intelligence can assemble a Sears & Roebuck home.”
The company sold close to 75,000 of these kits. We’ve highlighted some of our favorites that you can still buy today (in the resale market, of course).
34. ‘Love It or List It’ Films Two Different Endings
In HGTV’s popular show, “Love It or List It,” homeowners frustrated with their current homes, work with a realtor and a designer. The former searches for their perfect new house and the latter renovates their current one. The homeowners then must decide to “love it” and stay in their renovated home or “list it” and move on.
According to a Reddit user, the show filmed his family members both loving and listing their home and then aired the wrong one. The show chose to air the family moving when they really ended up staying.
Other Reddit users chimed in with agreement, adding that the show pays for 50% of the renovation and often the design choices are made by the producers, not the homeowners.
35. NY Requires Sellers to Disclose That Their Property Is Haunted
In a case that made it all the way to the New York State Supreme Court, the decision from Stambovsky v. Ackley compels sellers of real property in New York State to sign a separate disclosure if they do, in fact, believe their property is haunted.
Popularly known as the Ghostbusters Ruling, the case is frequently discussed in property law classes, cited in textbooks, and cited by other courts.
“Ghostbusters,” by the way, was written by Dan Ackroyd and based on his own family’s long history of ghost hunting.
Got a wild real estate fact that belongs in this article? Tell us in the comments below.