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What Is a Mansion?


Jun 01, 2020 by Barbara Zito

There are big houses, and then there are mansions. So what is a mansion and how is it defined? Square footage, for one, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Let's take a look at what makes these titans of real estate so special.

What makes a house a mansion?

For starters, most real estate experts agree that a house must have a minimum of 8,000 square feet in order to earn the mansion moniker. But square footage alone does not a mansion make. It's all about what's under the roof -- and around the sprawling grounds -- that separate a mansion from simply a really big house.

Now here's where things get a little subjective: A 8,000-square-foot manse in the Holmby Hills enclave of Los Angeles might seem rather cozy, especially when you've got neighbors the likes of The Manor (also known as Spelling Manor, the largest home in Los Angeles County) and The Playboy Mansion, at around 56,000 and 20,000 square feet, respectively.

Here are some famous residences that are safely in "true mansion" territory:

  • The White House in Washington, DC, -- 132 rooms, 55,000 square feet
  • Kykuit Estate (Rockefeller Mansion) -- Mount Pleasant, NY -- 40 rooms, 36,000 square feet
  • Graceland, Memphis, TN -- 23 rooms, 17,552 square feet
  • The Breakers, Newport, RI -- 70 rooms, 62,482 square feet

While these houses vary greatly with the number of rooms and square footage, it's safe to say that they are not just big homes, but mansions.

A true mansion

While size certainly matters in the mansion and megamansion world, it's all of the other details that transform a home into a true mansion.

Whether the architecture is classic Tudor, contemporary, Mediterranean, or any other style under the sun, a true mansion is a one-of-a-kind home designed by an architect and constructed by a custom builder. Materials are important and finishes are the highest of high end. There's no need to worry about keeping up with the neighbors, likely because there is so much acreage that mansion dwellers can't see who lives next door.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder in real estate, and it's a matter of personal opinion what makes a mansion swoon-worthy. Here are some mansion must-haves that make these homes so luxurious:

Indoors:

  • A gourmet kitchen
  • A formal dining room and a casual dining area
  • Master suites
  • Game/recreation room
  • Library
  • Fitness room
  • Indoor pool/sauna
  • Home theater
  • Wet bar
  • Office(s)
  • Formal living room
  • Wine cellar
  • Nanny/housekeeper quarters
  • Bowling alley
  • Ballroom/event space

Outdoors:

  • Expansive property/manicured grounds and gardens
  • Tennis court and/or basketball court
  • An inground pool and patio (bonus points for an infinity pool)
  • Outdoor kitchen
  • Children's playground
  • Putting green
  • Climate-control garage
  • Ponds or water features

Suffice it to say, if a home has a good number of these items, there's no argument: It's a mansion.

Rise of the McMansion

While mansions are synonymous with custom building, McMansions are not. True to its snarky nickname, if a mansion is a steak dinner, then a McMansion is a fast-food burger.

McMansions are large homes of at least 3,000 square feet -- so not real mansions to begin with -- that popped up quickly in luxury developments during the 1980s and 1990s in exurbs of big metro areas in New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Arizona, among others. These were areas that received quite a blow in the 2008 recession, which led to many foreclosures. What was once a sign of excess became a sign of emptiness.

McMansions are proof that bigger isn't always better in real estate. While they might look stately at the end of a cul-de-sac, when you get up close and personal, you'll see just how cookie-cutter these homes are. They are built quickly using cheaper materials and have features that are a jumble of architectural styles -- and not in a good way. In fact, there are websites devoted to tearing apart McMansions for their asymmetry, odd window placement, misuse of exterior and interior space, and otherwise failed attempts at the class and style of the homes they really want to be but aren't.

Go big AND go home

No matter the style or location, a mansion will always be the hallmark of luxury real estate. Square footage is a qualifying factor, but what really seals the deal for these palatial homes is their amenities.

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