Last May, Elon Musk sent out a tweet saying he was divesting himself of most of his personal possessions and also his houses.
And lo, it has come to pass. The last of them, a mansion in Hillsborough, California, is on the market for $37.5m. Once that’s sold, he’s done and out of the property game.
Now the self-styled “technoking” of Tesla has proclaimed homes have no value to him, are the foundations of your belief system in the housing market shaking?
Well, I have to admit that I rather enjoyed this particular heresy. For generations, we’ve been told that buying a house is our ticket into the future, a marker of status, that owning property is a kind of propriety.
But Musk flipped that in one short, oddly worded tweet. “Own no house” was how he phrased it in the original message, as though “no house” was a concept in itself — he’s currently renting in Texas near his SpaceX rocket venture.
Looking back at his housing portfolio, one can see this is not as simple a proposition as putting a nice semi-detached number with a well-kept garden on the market. There were quite a few to dispose of: Gene Wilder’s former ranch-style home in Bel Air had to go, as did a neighbouring one, with seven bedrooms and 11 bathrooms (why one needs more bathrooms than bedrooms is a mystery, the answer to which only the very rich know). There was the enclave of four houses also in Bel Air, three of which he never lived in — they were bought as a privacy buffer.
And now the last, in Hillsborough, south of San Francisco. He has high hopes for the new owners of that final property. “Just needs to go to a large family who will live there. It’s a special place,” he tweeted, sounding rather more like he was putting the family Labrador up for adoption than selling a mansion with 47 acres and aspirations of being Versailles.
In LA, property is as big as its celebs. Entire websites are devoted to the gossip around who has bought and sold which particular mansion. To recant and sell up is not just a property deal. It is inviting excommunication.
Even in less glitzy corners of, say, the London property market, there’s still a fervour to owning. In the era of Margaret Thatcher, we were even given tax breaks to do so in the form of mortgage interest relief.
A hundred years ago, barely a quarter of people in the UK were owner-occupiers. It is now more than 65 per cent (off a peak of 70 per cent, shortly after mortgage relief ended in 2000).
In that century, we’ve collectively come to believe so hard in this idea that now you are damned near a sinner if you choose to spend your money on lattes rather than the deposit for your first home. And then there is the abnegation required to pay that first timer’s mortgage, if you are lucky enough to qualify for one.
Is it just possible that Musk might have a point?
There is, of course, good reason to be wary of his proclamations.
He was dead set against artificial intelligence, calling it one of the “most existential threats to the survival of the human race” and then shortly afterwards set up his own AI Foundation. Bitcoin. Buy, buy, buy! Sell, sell, sell! And he’s also turned brick manufacturer — his Boring Bricks, dirt cheap at 10 cents each, are made out of the dirt from his Boring Company’s Hyperloop tunnels, currently burrowing their way under US cities. He said he wanted them to be used for affordable housing while still owner of those seven properties.
But I keep coming back to the “own no house” and “selling almost all physical possessions” tweet.
A quick rifle through the Bible and I find it again in archaic language in the Gospel of Matthew. A rich young rich man asks Jesus how to attain eternal life. “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
I have yet to work out whether Musk would imagine himself as the young rich man in this story or would prefer the mantle of Jesus himself. A tweet is about the same length as a biblical verse.
But before we all go to follow Musk, and start preaching against Mammon outside the estate agents, let us remember that just as every human needs a place to live, so too does every religion — in temples, cathedrals, mosques. The Church of England is particularly good at the real estate game: as well as some iconic addresses for its cathedrals, it is also among the top 20 landowners in the country.
Much as one might admire the Musk ideal, there are very few of us — not even the church — who can afford such purity. And very few of us can afford a rocket to go exploring the uncharted real estate of the Moon.