A luxury home has long been a status symbol, meant to showcase wealth by utilizing in-demand architects and rare imported materials. It was certainly the case for the wealthiest families in Gilded Age America, prior to the turn of the 20th century, when building a mansion to use as a summer cottage in the resort town Newport, Rhode Island, was a popular move.
“They built them to make a statement — there’s no way around that,” says Trudy Coxe, CEO and executive director of the Preservation Society of Newport County, which preserves and operates 11 historic properties and landscapes in Newport. “They wanted others to know that they could afford to build them.”
But luxurious mansions and high-end homes aren’t just a thing of the past — the luxury homes of today offer a modern take on the mansions you see in Newport, other parts of the U.S. and throughout the world. To help you know the difference, we’ll break down the basics of what makes luxury living different from a standard home:
What Is a Mansion?
A mansion is commonly defined as a luxury home with at least 5,000 square feet of living space, though depending on the location, the qualifying size may be even larger at 8,000 or more square feet.
“Certainly a house that’s 10,000 square feet, you’re certainly stepping into a house that’s a level above (a standard home),” says Jennifer Leahy, a licensed real estate salesperson and founder of the Jennifer Leahy Team with brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate specializing in luxury properties in Greenwich, Connecticut.
It’s not just the size of the footprint, however. The high-end aspect of a mansion is universal — houses referred to as mansions often have grand staircases, elaborate wine cellars and rooms big enough to entertain large groups of people. If the mansion sits on a larger estate, the property may be sprawling with amenities such as stables, gardens, tennis courts and swimming pools, though none are required features.
“If you go to England and you have a mansion, it’s usually surrounded by hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of acres — that’s how you built them there. Here (in Newport), you just piled them up one after another,” Coxe says. Many of Newport’s remaining Gilded Age mansions still have their own grounds but are within roughly a mile of each other along one road, Bellevue Avenue.
While “mansion” is still used to describe homes regardless of when they were built in some parts of the U.S., in other areas it’s rarely used. “The word mansion has a connotation of being very old world, very heavy,” says Tracy McLaughlin, director of luxury estates for real estate brokerage The Agency in Marin County, California, and author of “Real Estate Rescue.” “We use a lot of different vernacular that describes a large house, but the word mansion — at least in California — would never be used.”
Mansion vs. Standard House
Architectural style can vary widely for any type of house, regardless of its footprint or appraised value. Mansions and ultra-luxury homes, however, are often the starting point for building trends imitated in less pricey homes.
Think large, detailed moldings and imported stone or marble, large windows that highlight a decadent fountain in the courtyard or a view of the ocean, and high ceilings to make a grand room feel even bigger.
A luxury home may also reinterpret iconic pieces of architecture in history. For example, Marble House, a Newport mansion commissioned by William and Alva Vanderbilt and completed in 1892, was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt with the Petit Trianon at Versailles as noted inspiration.
In more modern or recently built mansions and luxury properties, Leahy says smart home features are state-of-the-art and beyond what you can install yourself today in any house or apartment with the help of Wi-Fi. “It’s interesting how many of us just with average homes have a lot of these capabilities now, but I still don’t see the same level of automation,” Leahy says. She notes Lutron lighting systems, Sonos entertainment and audio systems, Savant home automation and other brands are commonly a part of whole-home automation in mansions she sees.
Mansion vs. McMansion
There is one type of home meant to emulate the grandeur of a mansion, but it falls notoriously short: the McMansion.
When a house is described as a McMansion, it’s rarely done so in a positive way. Compared to the average home, McMansions have a large footprint that’s often more than 3,000 square feet but still shy of a true mansion or luxury home.
A McMansion also “appears to be a large home because compared to the plot of land it’s on, it’s very large,” Leahy says. In suburban settings, McMansions are often oversized compared to the size of the lot, making the front and back yards tiny. In a developed neighborhood, you’re also likely to find that surrounding homes are near-perfect matches.
The quality of the construction and materials is also typically shy of a true mansion. McLaughlin says the faux Mediterranean style is often overused, and detailed columns or pieces of architecture that would be expensive in a luxury home are instead made of foam or a similar lightweight material.
A McMansion may also exude grandeur that seems a little out of place. “You’ll have a huge master bathroom that looks like a spa out of Vegas instead of a master bathroom that’s a little more intimate,” McLaughlin says.
While you may be drawn to a house otherwise described as a McMansion for the square footage or location, be vigilant about determining the quality of the building itself. Detailed architectural features likely don’t add much value to the property because they’re not authentic, and as a result may not wear well over the years.
The Cost of Maintaining a Mansion
A luxury home needs continuous maintenance and care to keep it in working order and looking good. However, the higher initial price, larger footprint and more expensive features guarantee a higher price tag to keep the place in shape.
The sheer size of the property requires additional help from professionals who can manage maintenance, cleaning and repairs. Both Leahy and McLaughlin note that at least one full-time groundskeeper is common on estate properties. “If you have 10,000 or 12,000, 20,000 (square) feet, you’re going to need a full-time staff member inside as well,” Leahy says.
The higher cost of the initial construction of the property also translates to higher costs for major repairs. Coxe notes that the Preservation Society of Newport County is gearing up to replace the roof at Rosecliff, an 1899 mansion commissioned by silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs — a project that will cost around $5 million.
“You can’t afford to let water run into the house,” Coxe says, noting many of the mansions in the society’s care have one-of-a-kind painted ceilings. “When someone says, ‘We think we have some problems with the roof,’ alarm bells go off. You can’t afford to put it off.”
While not every luxury home or mansion requires the same amount of work, prepare for the cost to live at such a high level of luxury to go far beyond the sale price.
“The bottom line is there are a lot of people that have to work on a house like that to keep it looking that way,” McLaughlin says. “For a lot of people, that’s a big burden to carry.”
More from U.S. News