Presidential Cribs

MarketWatch

Editor's note: Republican Mitt Romney, who is mentioned in this story, suspended his campaign for the presidential nomination on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008.

Home values give small glimpse of how candidates live

Each candidate running for president hopes to be moving his or her belongings into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next year. For now, however, a look at their current digs gives voters a small glimpse of how these people lead their lives -- before one of them leads the country.

Currently, Hillary Clinton's home is a five-bedroom, four-bathroom, $1.7 million house in Chappaqua, N.Y., while Barack Obama owns a $1.65 million Georgian revival home in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood, located on the city's South Side.

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John McCain's home is a $4.72 million luxury condo near Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix and Mitt Romney owns a $1.77 million home in Belmont, Mass. Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee is making do with a $540,000 home in North Little Rock, Ark.

Home values don't say much about the candidates' positions, or even their characters, but they do give voters a sense of how the candidates live, said Marty Frame, general manager of Cyberhomes (cyberhomes.com), the Web site that provided the data on the candidates' home values. Cyberhomes is a subsidiary of Fidelity National Financial Inc.; the site is supplied with data from Fidelity, which also holds one of the nation's largest title insurance companies.

A populist message coming from a candidate who is living in a lavish home, for example, may raise questions for some voters, he said. Others wouldn't base a judgment on a candidate's home -- but they sure do want to know the information anyway.

"There's a lot of voyeuristic interest in real estate," Frame said, and that's especially true for the rich and famous. "We like to see how these people are living."

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Realty realities

In many cases, Americans won't have a full understanding of how a candidate lives until he or she wins the presidency, said Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of modern American history at the University of New Hampshire. But a candidate's home value does give a clue about the amount of wealth he or she has amassed and how he or she spends it, she added.

Candidates have been known to accentuate their humble beginnings, partly because of the emphasis in this country that people can go from rags to riches. Consider Abraham Lincoln, one of the country's most revered presidents -- and known for living in a log cabin, she said.

But more often than not, most presidents have been wealthy men, Fitzpatrick said. Voters often don't get caught up in comparing the wealth of candidates, unless it becomes an issue, "like it did with (John) Edwards' $400 haircut," she said. Edwards, who was running for the Democratic nomination, recently dropped out of the race.

(Incidentally, Edwards lives on property valued at $5.43 million in Chapel Hill, N.C., which includes a 10,400-square-foot main house, a 15,600-square-foot recreation building (with basketball and squash courts, pool and two stages) and a third 2,200-square-foot structure that connects the two buildings, according to Cyberhomes.)

But some voters feel safer with a president that has substantial personal wealth, believing that it signifies an entrance into politics for reasons other than personal gain, she said. Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, both from wealthy families.

"Roosevelt was accused of class treason during the New Deal," Fitzpatrick said, as his policies favored the working classes over the elite -- despite his background.

Just like us

As homeowners in many areas of the country cringe watching home prices sink, it also may be interesting to know that some presidential candidates are likely cringing along with them.

Candidates who live in neighborhoods where home prices are dropping include Obama, who lives where prices have dropped 0.2% between November 2006 and November 2007, and McCain, who lives in a neighborhood where prices have dropped 0.5%, according to Cyberhomes data. In Romney's neighborhood, prices have dropped 7% during those 12 months.

Homes in Huckabee's North Little Rock neighborhood, on the other hand, had home-price increases of 0.2% between November 2006 and November 2007, according to Cyberhomes.

But homes in Clinton's Chappaqua neighborhood appreciated the most -- about 20.2% during the period, according to the data. The price increases seen in the area since the Clintons moved in in 1999 could be a result of having the former first family down the block, Frame said.

"It was already nice, but it picked up dramatically -- maybe more than it would have," he said of the area, adding there may have been a "halo effect," courtesy of the Clintons.

Amy Hoak is a MarketWatch reporter based in Chicago.

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