Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues.
Todd gets all architectural on us by telling us its not just about the building…its the land! …Jonathan Miller
Having recently returned from a vacation spent hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, home of George Washington Vanderbilt’s “Biltmore Estate “, I picked up today’s New York Times whose lead story is titled “The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age “, and Voila! The idea for this post was born. How does today’s Gilded Age compare with that of the late 19th century, with regard to the opulence of houses for very rich people? The short answer is it doesn’t!
Consider two examples of new houses built exactly one hundred years apart. George Washington Vanderbilt (whose wealth was inherited from his grandfather, Cornelius the Commodore ) constructed Biltmore between 1888 and 1895.) Bill Gates began construction on his new house in 1988 and it was completed in 1995. Keep in mind that Vanderbilt was wealthy, but not the wealthiest in the country at the time (at least not him personally, though his various family members taken together may have been). Bill Gates  is clearly the wealthiest person in the country today with a net worth of $82 billion (as compared with number two, Warren Buffett  at a mere $46 billion).
The Gates house has a lakefront site measuring about 5 (five) acres but the typical site in the neighborhood is much smaller. The other lakefront houses on his street have sites of about a quarter acre or less (based on a Google Earth fly by). The property is less than five miles from downtown Seattle.
Vanderbilt purchased 125,000 (one hundred twenty five thousand) acres in Asheville prior to constructing his new house (surely a lot of that was what we appraisers call excess land, but they probably called it excess mountain ranges then again, more than likely he called it his backyard). After his death his widow (ever the practical one) sold most of the land to the government, leaving a paltry 8,000 acres with the estate.
Bill Gates had Bohlin Cywinski Jackson  as his architect. Vanderbilt hired Richard Morris Hunt  (Breakers, Metropolitan Museum, etc) and the landscape was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted , he of Central Park fame.
As to square footage, here again the edge goes to Biltmore at 175,000 square feet, or four acres, as compared to Gates at only about one acre of living space. (“Based on the appraiser’s analysis of the market, living area in excess of two acres is considered an over-improvement” I just wanted to stick that in there)
Now I’ve never been to the Gates house but I have visited Biltmore, on two occasions. And what impresses me most is not the 250 rooms, or the 65 fireplaces, or the banquet hall that measures 3,000 square feet and seats 64 (at one really long table) with a 70 foot high ceiling. What I really like is the basement. Among other things it has a pool and a bowling alley.
But hey, as long as we’re dreaming, let’s make the “Gates house” the “Gatehouse” for Biltmore. Now we’ve got the best of the old and the best of the new all on one property.
That’s what I call the highest and best use.