Homebuyers Guide Homeownership

Everything You Need to Know About Mansions

Mansions date all the way back to ancient Roman times, but in the United States they’re most closely associated with the Gilded Age, an era spanning roughly from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. 

Look around the U.S. and you’ll find several examples of these emblematic mansions, from Kykuit in New York, built for John D. Rockefeller; the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Michigan, The Breakers in Rhode Island, built for Cornelius Vanderbilt; and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, built for another Vanderbilt (George II). 

While the above examples are all open to the public, mansions are still meant first and foremost as a single-family dwelling. 

What is a mansion?

There isn’t an accepted definition for what constitutes a mansion, but they’re definitely big. And they’re always expensive. However, both of these descriptors are a matter of opinion—and location.

Let’s discuss size first. Mansions are widely accepted as being between 5,000 and 8,000 square feet, although the numbers can climb much higher. Biltmore, for example, is a whopping 135,280 square feet. However, consider location: The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is nestled amid a swath of the Blue Ridge Mountains where acreage was widely available at the time. 

It’s safe to say a person who lives in a “mere” 3,000-square-foot home in Manhattan would definitely be living in a mansion. And yet, if they’re living in a 3,000-square-foot house in Akron, Ohio, the residence would probably be deemed more middle class.

Size is only one factor; price is another. Mansions, simply put, are expensive. Think of that same Manhattan vs. Akron example above—3,000 square feet in New York City would cost many times the amount of a property the same size in Akron, hence bolstering the case that the former is a mansion and the latter is not.

So while we can’t necessarily settle on a definition, when you’re considering if something is a mansion or not, size relative to its location and the asking price relative to its location are two good places to start. 

What makes a house a mansion?

We’ve discussed mansions from an outward perspective, but there are certain interior cues that help cement a property as a mansion.

Mansions by their very definition are imposing. That might mean a vast entryway or a grand staircase, a state-of-the-art kitchen, or a gigantic master bathroom as big as a bedroom in a more modest type of property. You can also keep an eye out for precious materials like marble and exotic woods like tigerwood, Brazilian walnut, and mahogany. 

As mansions progressed from ancient Roman times and Medieval times, where wealthy occupants were focused on safety and security above all else—building motes, walls, gates, and all other manner of protection around their properties—upper-class families instead began to focus on leisure activities in later centuries.

That meant rooms dedicated to leisure, such as an indoor gym or racquetball court, a bowling alley, a pool or other types of activities. Even today, these types of amenities are attractive for people fortunate enough to be able to browse and buy a mansion.

How much does a mansion cost?

Since the definition of a mansion varies, so does the price. But in general, you should be prepared to pay much more for a mansion than a typical single-family home in the same area. 

According to the World Property Journal, the average price of a luxury home in 2019 was $1.6 million. Of course, that’s the average price, which doesn’t account for big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that the average price for a luxury property was $4.1 million.

Are mortgages different for a mansion?

The Los Angeles Times found that many buyers who purchase a luxury property priced $2 million or higher go the all-cash route—35 percent of homes in this category were purchased using all cash in 2017, according to the Times via Multiple Service Listing data from the California Association of Realtors.

Still, for buyers who can’t purchase a home outright, they will have to get a huge mortgage— and go through all the same strict underwriting steps as anyone else trying to secure a standard, or “conforming” loan.

According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the current loan limit for most of the country is $510,400 (that number jumps in notoriously pricey or sought-after areas like New York, the Washington, D.C., metro area, most of the California coastline, greater Nashville and the Tetons). Anyone requiring financing for the purchase of a home more expensive than that would need to get a jumbo loan. 

What is a jumbo loan?

A jumbo loan is exactly what it sounds like: a larger loan to cover the cost of a more expensive luxury property. Interest rates can actually be slightly lower, according to Lending Tree, because people who are able to afford a high-priced property in the first place typically have strong credit scores and are considered to be at a lower risk of defaulting on a loan.

Mansions vs. “McMansions”

In your search for finding out more about mansions, you might have come across the phrase “McMansion.” While the connotation behind a mansion is positive—something luxurious and aspirational—the connotation behind a “McMansion” is almost always negative.

According to CityLab, the phrase “McMansion” was coined in the 1980s to describe large, new-build homes cropping up in gated subdivisions all over the country. McMansions, according to a whole blog devoted to them, tend to lack exterior elements like visual balance and proportions.

Inside, they might use builder-grade materials instead of higher-end finishes found in true mansions. Still, as the article states, “There’s no consensus on exactly what a McMansion is; it seems to be one of those things that you know when you see it.”

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