Sob story of the day, Cat Rock edition

By Felix Salmon
December 29, 2010
story of retired churchman Fred Osborn, who might have to sell his family home.

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Today’s WSJ features the sad, sad story of retired churchman Fred Osborn, who might have to sell his family home. It only has single-pane windows, making it expensive to heat in the winter. And even after renting it out in the summer, Osborn ends up losing money on the old place. On top of that, his son has moved in, along with his four kids. If it got sold, three generations of Osborns would be kicked out at once.

“I want to enjoy retirement now, but I really can’t afford to do that,” Osborn tells the WSJ’s Anne Miller. “It’s a very conflicting, emotional thing.”

But here’s the rub: the story is in the WSJ’s real estate section. It’s basically about a home for sale. The price is $200,000, plus $1,000 a year in taxes. Will you help poor Mr Osborn out?

Hang on, I might have missed out a zero. Actually, the price is $2,000,000, plus $10,000 a year in taxes. A little bit less sympathetic now, I guess.

Wait, I’ve just found another order of magnitude down the back of the sofa. Osborn, it turns out, “will entertain offers above $20 million”, while taxes are “about $100,000 a year”.

Oh, and he’s the great-great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, which I guess makes his gambolling grandhildren Vanderbilt’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren. But who’s counting.

Not Miller, whose math doesn’t make much sense at all:

Heating the 14-bedroom stone mansion can run $200 a day in the winter—too expensive for year-round living…

Mr. Osborn IV, a former Columbia University crew coach, rents out the castle for weddings between June and September. Day rates start at $55,000.

But it’s barely enough. The Osborns estimate the property consumes at least $500,000 a year, including taxes.

If the Osborns pay $200 a day every day for six months, that comes to about $36,500 a year to heat the old pile. A lot of money, to be sure, and a lot of carbon emissions too, but still a tiny fraction of those total running costs, which themselves can be covered by renting out the castle for nine days over the course of the summer. Beyond the heating and the taxes, there’s no indication of what makes up the lion’s share of those half-a-mil-per-year running costs, but it hardly seems as though $200 a day for heating would tip the scales enough to force the family to move out of the mansion.

All the same, there’s a hint of possible good news at the end of the story.

Over Thanksgiving, Mr. Osborn III learned that some younger cousins have done well in online ventures and banking. Maybe they will have the funds—and interest—to move in, he said, even if the property doesn’t stay in his direct lineage.

“I’m an equal-opportunity family patron,” he said.

Those younger cousins might not be named Frederick Henry Osborn IV. But their blood is still blue. And that’s what counts, surely.


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Felix, I honestly thought this story was a joke until I read the WSJ article. Absolutely ridiculous. WSJ should report on real middle class families in danger of losing their homes.

Posted by harshalpatel | Report as abusive

The stated operating cost of $500,000/year is likely accurate. Probably includes half a dozen full-time staff. It does seem unlikely that the heating cost is a major concern, however.

Bet they aren’t getting that many wedding rentals. If he only cared about breaking even on the operating costs, he would set it up as a weekly vacation rental. That would go a long way.

He’s probably more interested in pulling $20M of equity out, however.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Maybe I’m cold-hearted, but I wasn’t feeling sorry for the guy when I was reading the first paragraph. Why? Because if he couldn’t make his house affordable with renting it out and so many people living in it (some of whom would be working, no doubt) then he overbought. Way overbought.

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