The 28-minute video "When Mitt Romney Came to Town" -- an attack on the Republican presidential candidate’s experiences with the private-equity firm Bain Capital -- claims that Romney is "tearing down his 3,000-square-foot house to build an 11,000-square-foot house."
When the news came out last summer, it became something of a media sensation. Vanity Fair published a list of things that "could fit inside Mitt Romney’s new house," including a Memphis-area Enterprise-Rent-A-Car facility, Jennifer Aniston’s old house and "the world’s largest whale."
But is the tale accurate?
There’s a bit of disagreement over two issues -- the square footage involved, and whether the project is actually going forward. We’ll tackle those two issues individually.
The dimensions of the "tear-down" project
The home in question is located in La Jolla, Calif., an affluent oceanfront neighborhood adjoining San Diego, Calif. A recent article by the San Diego Union-Tribune makes the Romneys’ immediate neighborhood sound positively dreamy. "The area’s winding lanes are lined with Tudor-style mansions, shingled California bungalows and cottages that could have been airlifted from the Cotswolds," the article said. (The Union-Tribune noted that Romney trails both President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee in donations from the 92037 ZIP code.)
Mitt Romney and his wife Ann bought their property, located on what is described as a quiet cul-de-sac, in 2008 for $12 million; two years later, it was assessed at $8.7 million. The Union-Tribune reported that it was built in 1936 and has three bedrooms and four-and-a-half baths. It has a lawn that slopes down to a white sand beach.
Columbia Journalism Review’s "The Audit" blog noted that the vast majority of the property’s value stems from its location, rather than its structure: "The county assessed the value of Romney’s house at $8.7 million last year," The Audit reported. "Eight million bucks of that value was in the land and just $750,000 was in the 3,000 square-foot house and other improvements."
Will Carless, a staff writer with the Voice of San Diego who lives nearby and often surfs in the vicinity, said the expanse of the Romneys’ parcel is notable, with structures placed far enough back not to get hit by even the biggest swells. "Half his yard is ice plant," he said, referring to a non-native species of flora. "I’ve often looked up and thought it was such big waste of space."
Apparently the Romneys did, too. The size of their family was also a factor. A campaign spokesman told the Chicago Tribune that the reason for nearly quadrupling the size was to make room for visits by the couple's five married sons and 16 grandchildren.
When the Union-Tribune initially reported the proposed renovation on Aug. 21, 2011, it cited a permit application Romney had filed with the City of San Diego to bulldoze the existing, 3,009-square-foot, single-story home and replace it with a new, two-story, 11,062-square-foot structure.
That’s the source of the information used in the Winning Our Future video. But that description has been contested by Romney himself, in an interview with New Hampshire Union Leader publisher Joseph W. McQuaid on Aug. 29, 2011.
McQuaid wrote: "It's not accurate, Romney said, simply. The application he made, two years ago, was to double the living space by turning one story into two. The 'quadrupling'' was a measurement of added nonliving space, including a basement and garage."
Granted, even doubling a home’s size is no trivial undertaking. Still, it’s not quadrupling. We wondered if Romney had a point that the description was overblown. So we asked the National Association of Realtors for what the standard practice would be for making such comparisons.
"There's no national standard for measuring or reporting square footage," said Stephanie Singer, a spokeswoman for the real estate trade group. "Those rules are usually dictated by local zoning ordinances and/or state laws. So determining square footage can vary widely across the country. Some jurisdictions may include rooms like unfinished basements, for example, while others do not."
She added that the association’s code of ethics does not directly address the question of disclosures about a home’s square footage. "The code does stipulate that Realtors shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications," she said. "In the case of determining square footage, however, Realtors often rely on disclosures and information made by the sellers."
Without solid guidance, we think it’s reasonable for the filmmakers to have used the numbers that Romney stipulated on the application itself. That makes this part of the film’s portrayal accurate.
Is the tear-down going forward?
The video’s phrasing suggests that the project is proceeding. But that’s not necessarily accurate.
Dave Schwab, a reporter with the La Jolla Light newspaper, told PolitiFact that he bumped into a T-shirt-and-jean-clad Romney outside his house as Schwab was initially reporting the story of the tear-down last August. Romney was in a rush to leave town, but he told Schwab he would put him in touch with his staff for further information. Schwab recalled the staffer telling him in so many words that Romney is "running for president, and as soon as that ends, he will revisit the project."
Interviews with Schwab and others confirmed that the project has not yet begun. In fact, we have not seen any reports that the project has even received official government approval yet. In a Jan. 2, 2012, article, the Union-Tribune reported that city officials described the plans as being "on hold." Other reports suggest that some of the neighbors aren’t wild about a large-scale expansion, though it’s unclear what role, if any, that could play in the approval process.
One key step in the process involves an environmental review -- and a real estate agent who is representing nearby homes said that’s no piece of cake.
"That’s nowhere near a rubber stamp of approval," said Craig Lotzof of the Lotzof Group. "Any time you build along the coast -- it doesn’t matter who you are -- you have lots of hoops to go through."
So while there’s no sign that the Romneys have backed off their tear-down plan, it also isn’t imminent, and it still faces practical hurdles. So the video’s suggestion that a tear-down is under way or about to start is incorrect.
The video used a reasonable figure for dimensions of the "teardown" project -- even though the Romney campaign calls it a doubling of living space, the official application uses numbers that would amount to a quadrupling. But the video implied that the project is under way when in fact it’s not imminent. On balance, we rate the statement Mostly True.