LA JOLLA, Calif. — On a recent weekday, a half-dozen construction workers crowded onto a small plot of land in this pricey community, banging away on an 11,000-square-foot house with expansive oceanfront views that will soon replace one a fraction of the size.
There’s a large master suite, a room for all the beach gear — and a car elevator. Outside, scrawled in graffiti on a wall separating the property from the beach, was a message touting Mitt Romney for president.
Two years ago, Mitt Romney didn’t think he would run for political office again. And in the aftermath of his bitter defeat in the presidential campaign, he embarked on something of a real estate spree. He simultaneously began building two multimillion-dollar homes, one here on the Pacific Ocean and another outside Salt Lake City. He also bought a third, a slopeside ski chalet in Park City, Utah.
For the first time in more than a decade, unencumbered by political considerations, the two-time presidential candidate and former private equity executive was free to spend his many millions without concern of how it might look. But now that he’s considering a third presidential bid, the monuments of his wealth could become a political inconvenience, particularly as one of his key themes has been America’s growing income divide.
Romney is traveling on Wednesday to Mississippi State University, a campus in the country’s poorest state, where aides say he will outline his vision for a better America.
Romney, whose last presidential bid was hampered by his image of excessive privilege and insensitivity, may recognize the trouble his real estate holdings could cause in another campaign.
He is taking steps to shed some of his property, including retaining a broker who is currently showing the La Jolla home to potential buyers, according to a Romney aide. The aide would not disclose the asking price or explain why the former Massachusetts governor and his wife, Ann, want to sell the home after more than four years of city permitting, hearings, and construction.
In all, Romney has four homes. All of them are at least twice as large as the average home in the United States. They contain spas and hot tubs, and garages to hold up to four cars. They’ve built kitchens and dining rooms large enough to accommodate their large, sprawling family (5 sons, 5 daughters-in-law, and 23 grandchildren and counting).
“He wants to be close to his family,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime Romney confidant. “There’s nothing more important to him than his kids and grandkids. . . . And if you could afford a house, and you’re as close as the Romneys are to their kids, that’s what you do.”
Romney’s plans to tear down and rebuilt his home in La Jolla were already underway during his last campaign. But since he lost the 2012 election, Romney has also purchased a six-bedroom home that was listed for $8.9 million in Park City, Utah, and he’s built another 5,900-square-foot home 30 miles away near Salt Lake City.
He still has his New Hampshire vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee, but last year sold his condominium in Belmont for $1.2 million, cutting his remaining ties to Massachusetts and raising questions about whether his 2016 campaign would again be headquartered in Boston.
“During the campaign neither Ann nor I had any time to think about home projects,” Romney said in an interview a year after the 2012 election. “But now that the campaign is over, we have a little more time.”
The new home in California includes an infamous “car elevator,” first reported in 2012 by Politico and used by Romney’s opponents to cast him as out of touch. A May 2013 planning document described it this way: “The proposed garage will have the appearance of a two-car garage, but will include a lift inside that will rotate two cars below grade to the basement area.”
Building the home was the culmination of a long battle, which at times became heated with neighbors who said Romney’s new home — much larger than his former one — was out of character with the neighborhood. Some neighbors also complained that he was incorporating square footage from a beach long believed to be public in order to build a larger home. Romney’s home is on a street where houses are clumped together on small lots, with cherished views of the Pacific Ocean.
“It was contentious,” said Anthony A. Ciani, a local architect and the chief opponent of Romney’s expansion. “The issue was the bulk of it compared to the houses right next to it. It’s not compatible with the gingerbread houses that are immediately adjacent. It’s two, three times bigger than those.”
A group of neighbors appealed to the state, but local and state officials ruled in the Romneys’ favor, a process followed by the Los Angeles Times. Their former 3,000-square-foot home has been demolished — except for a swimming pool and spa — and a new one is under construction.
Planning documents call for a first floor that includes a library, and a large combined living room and dining room. The basement includes an exercise room, recreation room, and a room to hold the beach gear. Outside there will be a wraparound porch, as well as several palm trees, and a mixture of shrubs — boxwoods, coffeeberry, and California blue sage — to cover the property.
The work is expected to be completed by the end of the year, although it is unclear whether the Romneys will move in or find a buyer.
“Mitt and Ann’s plans are firm,” Matthew Peterson, the Romneys’ San Diego-based attorney, said in an e-mail. “They will be completing the construction of the home by the end of the year, but no decision has been made at this time whether to keep it, or sell it.”
He said that the home has been shown to potential buyers already, but “it is the Romneys’ expectation that if the home were to be sold, it would best be sold after it is completed.”
Romney’s wealth defined him in 2012, with a mixture of inadvertent comments, a reluctance to talk about his successful business career, and a video showing him disparaging 47 percent of Americans who rely on government assistance.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken shortly before the 2012 election, 53 percent of likely voters said that Romney’s policies would favor the wealthy, with only 34 percent saying he would favor the middle class. Romney often seemed more comfortable talking with donors than he did in diners.
But those close to Romney have long described him as far more frugal than the caricature of him suggests. He frequently flies in coach, carrying his own bags. He repairs winter gloves with duct tape, refuses to spend money on apps for his iPad, and has a go-to meal that consists of a home-made peanut butter and honey sandwich.
Romney is donating his $50,000 honorarium from Wednesday’s speech to charity, a contrast with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who collects fees that are five times higher. Clinton, too, has struggled in talking about her wealth, saying she was once “dead broke” while in her $5 million home.
“It’s going to be hard for Hillary Clinton to make Mitt Romney’s wealth a fruitful line of attack, with her multimillion dollar mansions in Georgetown and Chappaqua and her jet-setting lifestyle of the rich and famous,” said a Romney aide, who declined to be identified.
But even if he is modest in some of his personal spending decisions, one area Romneydoes splurge on is real estate. His properties are all close to where his five sons are living. Every summer, they all gather at the home in Wolfeboro, N.H., and they spent last Christmas at the home in Deer Valley, where the massive stone fireplace was large enough to hold stockings for nearly two dozen grandchildren.
In August 2013, a holding company managed by Ann Romney purchased the home in Park City that had been listed at $8.9 million. The 8,730 square-foot home — which has six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, an outdoor hot tub and a sauna — was once featured in Architectural Digest, showcasing blond wood, two-story windows, and a chandelier made from antlers.
A Romney aide said that he co-owned the home with L.E. Simmons, a prominent Romney donor who runs a Houston-based private equity firm.
The Romneys also bought property in Holladay, Utah, where they tore down a smaller home and built a 5,900-square-foot house that features a fountain, terraces, a gazebo, a fire pit, and a spa, according to plans reviewed by the Salt Lake Tribune.
The plans also called for a hidden room, an 11-foot-long area masked by a bookshelf that swings open. But Romney told the Globe that it was much less mysterious than initial news reports suggested.
“It’s a closet where we plan on keeping the copying machine, and the printer, and paper,” he said, laughing. “Not even a lock on the door. It’s hardly a secret room.”
Romney’s real estate movements
Since he lost the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney has been busy revamping his real estate inventory.