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What is a mansion?

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    When most people picture mansions, they're likely to envision an imposing wrought-iron gate, palatial grounds and a circle driveway wrapping around a grand fountain. Cut to a pair of doors opening to a gleaming expanse of marble lustrous enough to make a five-star hotel lobby blush. We've all seen them in movies and TV, but what is a mansion, and what makes a house a mansion instead of a luxury home?

    Mansion definition: What is considered a mansion?

    Technically, there is no universally established definition of a mansion. Some people define them by size, considering any home above 5,000 or 8,000 square feet to be a mansion. However, this definition leaves out a bigger picture. Regardless of their size, one thing people generally agree on is that mansions are about luxury. It takes more than just raw square footage for many in the real estate industry to consider a home a bona fide mansion. So, instead of asking "How big is a mansion?", it might be more worthwhile to consider a few characteristic features:

    • Luxurious amenities: A mansion is more than just four walls and a roof with a bunch of extra rooms. Mansions generally have an array of super-high-end amenities that you might be hard pressed to find in any other type of house. Private swimming pools, tennis courts, movie theaters, saunas, full-fledged libraries, butlers' pantries and even fully operational bowling alleys are not out of the question.
    • Top-grade materials: One of the chief differences between a true mansion and a cheaper imitation (sometimes derivatively called a "McMansion") is the quality of the materials. In the construction of a mansion, no expense is spared. Think imported Italian marble, expensive hardwoods and premium stonework. Mansions typically boast superior craftsmanship in the use of these materials as well, featuring extensive detailing and exquisite polish.
    • Extensive grounds: An upscale home might boast a certain number of bedrooms or even a luxe amenity or two, but, with mansions, the opulence extends to the surrounding spaces as well. Mansions are usually nestled in a generous plot of land, often with other buildings and outdoor living spaces. Private gardens, reflection pools and perhaps even a hedge maze are all features you might find in a mansion.

    The history of mansions

    Mansions, as we know them today, are a far cry from their historical roots. The term mansion is thought to come from the Latin term mansio, meaning "dwelling." Many scholars trace their origins to medieval Europe, where the precursors to modern mansions served as both homes and defensive fortresses for the nobility. Whereas castles primarily served as fortified structures for defense and symbols of power, early mansions were often the residences and retreats of wealthy individuals, emphasizing comfort and luxury alongside defensibility.

    As eras changed and society progressed, however, mansions transitioned from these fortress-like dwellings to more opulent showcases of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, emphasizing art and aesthetics more than military might. Eventually, as the industrial revolution ushered in a wave of newly affluent tycoons, mansions became testaments to the financial success of their residents.

    These days, modern mansions increasingly aim to combine luxury with sustainability and technological innovation while still retaining their emphasis on grandeur.

    How much does a mansion cost?

    While a mansion generally costs significantly more than standard homes in its area, the price of mansions varies widely. Here are a few factors that typically figure into the cost of a modern mansion:

    • Location: As with everything else in real estate, the three most important words are "location, location, location." A sprawling mansion in the middle of nowhere is likely to be much more affordable than one set in the center of a major city center or perched on a verdant bluff overlooking the ocean.
    • Amenities: Because a mansion is so deeply characterized by its amenities, it naturally follows that price scales accordingly. The mansion with a private bowling alley, indoor swimming pool or multi-floor garage is likely to fetch a higher price tag than the one with the quaint but comparatively modest Zen garden.
    • Condition: Mansions require significant upkeep. Their sheer size and the complexity of their amenities means ownership costs can potentially run high. Well-maintained mansions are therefore likely to go for substantially higher than those in disrepair.

    Tips for buying a mansion

    If you're interested in purchasing a mansion, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

    Get preapproved

    Mansions, especially modern mansions, generally come with a hefty price tag. Before starting house hunting, it generally helps to know your buying power. Getting preapproved for a mortgage not only gives you a clearer picture of your budget, it also shows sellers that you're a serious, qualified buyer — potentially giving you a competitive edge over other buyers. Do note that preapproval is not a substitute for a formal loan application and your outlined terms may be subject to change in your final loan offer.

    Explore pocket listings

    Many mansions never make it to public listings. Instead, they're often sold as pocket listings, where sellers value discretion and prefer to keep their sale private. Tapping into sections of this market typically requires a well-connected realtor who can introduce you to these off-market opportunities.

    Conduct a thorough inspection

    Sometimes, the grandeur of a mansion might overshadow some of its underlying issues. You might find it helpful to prioritize a comprehensive home inspection by professionals with experience in assessing large, complex properties. Doing so might alert you to challenges, from structural concerns to smaller, yet costly, repairs.

    Understand zoning laws

    If you're considering any modifications or additions to your mansion, you'll likely want to stay informed about local zoning laws. These regulations can dictate everything from how high you can build to the kinds of structures you can add. Understanding these regulations may help you make more informed decisions, potentially saving you from costly legal missteps.

    Consider total costs

    While the price tag alone is undeniably substantial, a mansion's purchase price is only the beginning. Property taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance — a larger home typically means larger utility bills and potentially more frequent repairs. Then there are the costs associated with certain amenities, like an indoor pool or state-of-the-art smart home system. Considering these when setting your budget might help stave off unexpected expenses.

    In summary

    What is a mansion? There isn't a clearcut answer. Generally, mansions are large, luxury homes with high-end amenities. They are typically one of the most expensive types of residences, extending beyond just their price tag as mansions often also have high upkeep costs. If you're interested in purchasing a mansion or other high-value luxury home, it's generally helpful to get preapproved to know what your budget should be before you start shopping.

    Take the first step and get preapproved.

    Have questions? Connect with a home lending expert today!

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