America’s Castles – Biltmore Estate

The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. is the largest home in America. (Image: timeless_toys/Flickr)

Biltmore is considered America’s largest home, boasting 250 rooms and 125,000 acres. Modeled after a 16th-century French chateau, the home is made of more than 11 million bricks.

Owner George Vanderbilt hired Fredrick Law Olmstead, the creator of New York’s Central Park, to design the grounds. The land was had been cleared for farming and timber before Vanderbilt purchased it, but Olmstead worked with foremen to remove damaged trees, allowing the strong ones to flourish. He also planted 300 white pines, and talked Vanderbilt into hiring a trained forester to manage the land. The forest at Biltmore became America’s first managed forest.

Sustainability efforts continue today. Vanderbilt’s descendants recently installed solar panels that supply more than 25 percent of the energy that powers the estate. Biltmore also sets an example for farm-to-table eating, harvesting eggs, fruits and veggies, and beef and lamb from its own farming operation.

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America’s Castles – Hempstead House

Hempstead House in Sands Point, NY is also called the Gould-Guggenheim Estate or Castle Gould. (Image: Michael Gray/Flickr)

The Hempstead House in New York’s Sands Point Preserve was full of pure extravagance in the early 1900s. Rare orchids filled a sunken palm court; exotic birds and wild flowers filled an aviary; the library was built to resemble the library of King James I. You can still visit the grounds of the Sands Point Preserve, which include half-a-dozen trails through woods, fields, a beach and a pond near the Long Island sound.

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America’s Castles – Stimson House

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The Stimson House Castle is located at 2421 South Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, California. Stimson House Castle was built in 1891 by Thomas Douglas Stimson who got rich in lumber and banking. In 1896 a private detective working for Stimson lit off a stick of dynamite against a castle wall and told Stimson someone was trying to kill him. Eventually Stimson figured out the detective was the guilty party and sent him off to jail. Stimson House Castle ended up in the hands of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity from USC in 1940 and they created such an ongoing ruckus that a wealthy neighbor made them an offer for the castle they could not refuse in 1948 and then the wealthy neighbor gave the place to the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent. The place was a convent until 1969 and then was used to house students from Mount St. Mary’s College until 1993 when it was again turned back into the convent it remains today.

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America’s Castles – CT State Capitol Building

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The Connecticut State Capitol is a castle-like building located in Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut. It was built in high Victorian Gothic style from 1871 to 1878 from designs by architect Richard M. Upjohn. The Connecticut State Capitol houses both branches of Connecticut’s state legislature as well as the offices of the Governor and is open to the public.

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Submerged Cities – Jamaica

Port Royal, Jamaica

Submerged Cities Port Royal

Submerged Cities Port Royal 2

(images via: wikimedia commons,

Tranquil tropical seas have silenced what was once “the most wicked and sinful city in the world,” according to those who traveled there during its heyday as pirates’ favorite party city. Port Royal, Jamaica was famous for its booze, its prostitutes and its raging all-night entertainment. As one of the largest European cities in the New World, it was also home to a number of very wealthy plantation owners. It was devastated by an estimated 7.5-magnitude earthquake in June of 1692, which sucked it into the ground on its unstable sand foundations and killed about 2,000 people. Its ruin was seen by the pious as retribution for all that had occurred there.

Forty feet of water now separate the remains of Port Royal from the surface of the sea; though it was still visible from above until the early 20th century, it has continued to sink and much of it is now covered with sand. It, too, has been an incredible site for archaeological exploration, revealing artifacts in near-perfect condition, like a pocket watch from 1686 stopped at 11:46.

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Record Rebound in Home Equity Gives Owners New Options

WASHINGTON — The biggest story in American real estate in 2013 hasn’t gotten  the attention it deserves, so let’s shout this out: Homeowners’ net equity  holdings soared $2.2 trillion from the third quarter of 2012 to the third  quarter of this year, according to new data collected by the Federal  Reserve.

This is a record rebound for a 12-month period. And it’s crucially important  in personal financial terms for hundreds of thousands of owners who for years  have been underwater on their mortgages, meaning their homes wouldn’t sell for  enough to pay off the loan.

They now have options they didn’t have before: They can sell their homes and  not have to bring money to the closing. They may be able to borrow against their  equity to help pay for college tuition, home improvements and other purposes.  They may be able to refinance their mortgages without having to use a  government-aided program.

Home equity is the difference between the mortgage debt outstanding on a  residence and the current market value of the home. If your house is worth  $300,000 and you owe the bank $150,000 — whether from a single mortgage or  multiple loans — you have $150,000 in equity. If your mortgage debt totals  $350,000 on a $300,000 house, you have $50,000 in negative equity.

Equity generally grows in several ways: You lower your debt by making  payments to your lender, the value of your house increases because market  conditions improve, or you raise the home’s sales value by remodeling or  upgrading it.

Growing home equity not only signifies widespread recovery in household  personal wealth, but also provides an important boost for the ongoing economic  recovery. Consumers who have a cushion of equity in their homes are more likely  to spend money on goods and services than those who don’t. The latest Fed “flow  of funds” calculations show that owners have now seen their equity stakes grow  more than $3.2 trillion from the post-bust low point in the first quarter of  2011.

During the financial crisis of 2008-11, millions of American owners fell into  negative equity positions as the sale value of their homes plummeted. With the  recovery that took hold in 2012, values began to turn upward again —  dramatically so in some of the hardest-hit areas where prices had fallen  fastest.

A new study released by CoreLogic, an Irvine real estate and mortgage data  firm, estimated that 791,000 homes moved from negative to positive equity status  during the third quarter of this year alone, and more than 3 million have done  so since the beginning of 2013. Though 6.4 million homeowners continue to be  underwater on their mortgage debt — in 13% of all homes with a mortgage — that  is down from 7.2 million (nearly 15%) as recently as the end of the second  quarter of this year.

CoreLogic researchers found that among the states that experienced the most  severe property devaluations during the bust and have recovered impressively,  some continue to have persistent hangovers of negative equity. In Nevada, nearly  a third of all homeowners are underwater, despite price gains. In Florida,  nearly 29% are still in negative equity, and in Arizona it’s nearly 23%.

In California, which suffered deep equity losses in non-coastal areas from  2007 to 2010, home values have roared back in the last two years. Now the state  has just a 13% negative equity rate — significantly lower than Ohio (18%),  Michigan and Illinois (both 17.7%), Rhode Island (16.6%) and Maryland  (15.6%).

The states with the highest rates of homeowner equity are Texas and Alaska,  where 96.1% of all owners with mortgages are in positive territory; Montana  (95.8%); North Dakota (95.7%); and Wyoming (95.4%).

Other findings from the CoreLogic study:

•People with higher-priced homes are somewhat more likely to have positive  equity than owners of lower-cost houses. Whereas 92% of all mortgaged homes in  the country valued at more than $200,000 have positive equity, just 82% of homes  valued at or below $200,000 do.

•Though homeowner equity wealth has increased rapidly in the last year, 10  million homeowners still have only modest equity stakes — less than 20% — and  that puts them at risk should property values tumble again.

But another bust is nowhere in sight, thanks to tougher underwriting and  regulatory oversight. So whether you’re one of the recent arrivals to positive equity status, or you’ve enjoyed it all along, the new year looks  encouraging.

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