On June 4 2023, a related post appeared on Reddit’s r/zillowgonewild, a subreddit created to discuss interesting listings posted on the real estate site Zillow.com:
Both May 2023 posts linked to the same article, published by British newspaper The Guardian on May 26 2023. It reported that the United States government planned to sell or give away ten lighthouses — a notably limited quantity given the popularity of the story:
Ten lighthouses that for generations have stood like sentinels along America’s shorelines protecting mariners from peril and guiding them to safety are being given away at no cost or sold at auction by the federal government.
The aim of the program run by the General Services Administration is to preserve the properties, most of which are more than a century old.
The development of modern technology, including GPS, means lighthouses are no longer essential for navigation, said John Kelly of the GSA’s office of real property disposition. And while the Coast Guard often maintains aids to navigation at or near lighthouses, the structures themselves are often no longer mission critical.
The Guardian reported that the General Services Administration managed a program to “preserve” the lighthouses. A search led to a page on the United States General Services Administration (GSA), “2023 Lighthouse Season,” with a brief preface about the program:
The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 codified the bright idea of sharing lighthouses as historical treasures with the public. To date, more than 151 lighthouses have been sold or transferred out of federal ownership, with 81 transferred at no cost to eligible entities, and 70 sold by auction to the public, generating about $10 million. Learn more about how our process works. Find your path to lighthouse ownership in one of these entry points.
That page had sections in the header for “Lighthouses for the public” and “Lighthouses for nonprofits and agencies.” A subsequent section labeled “Public offerings” explained:
You can’t get more waterfront than this! We open the popular lighthouse disposal for the public in June . This annual program allows the public to purchase lighthouses through online, real-time auctions. In the past decade, the program has put lighthouses across the country into the hands of those who love waterfront living and historical restoration. And this takes a burden off taxpayers for maintaining the properties. Start your journey here for more information on acquiring your seaside or lakeside retreat.
Upcoming public auctions (starting June 2023)
- Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Light in Ohio
- Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance Light in Michigan
- Penfield Reef Lighthouse in Connecticut
- Stratford Shoal Lighthouse in Connecticut
Each listed lighthouse was linked to corresponding entries on a separate GSA website, realestatesales.gov/gsaauctions. A listing for the first entry (Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Light) showed a “Current Bid” of $25,000, and indicated that the action had “Not Yet Started” as of June 8 2023.
“Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance Light” had a “Current Bid” of $10,000, as did “Stratford Shoal Lighthouse” in Stratford, Connecticut. “Penfield Reef Lighthouse” had a “Current Bid” of $50,000; none of the four linked lighthouses appeared to be “free.”
A June 6 2023 CNBC.com article about the GSA’s ten lighthouses reported:
The U.S. General Services Administration is offering up six lighthouses to federal, state or local government agencies, nonprofits, educational organizations, or other entities willing to maintain, preserve, and make them available to the public for recreational, educational, or cultural purposes.
The free lighthouses are in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. The GSA will also sell four lighthouses in Ohio, Connecticut, Michigan and New York in a public auction.
But there’s a catch: While the lighthouse is free, the new owners will be responsible for the cost of upkeep and maintenance.
A section labeled “Owning a lighthouse isn’t cheap” quoted lighthouse owner Richard Cucé, who purchased a lighthouse for $192,000 in 2022. CNBC said he “intends to spend about $1 million to restore the structure,” and Cucé estimated steep yearly “upkeep” costs:
Cucé estimates that the upkeep will cost between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, which includes maintaining a boat to get to and from the lighthouse. He’s hoping to make some income by giving tours and hosting events.
A May 31 2023 USAToday.com item about the “free lighthouses” included information about further costs associated with lighthouse ownership. Although “free lighthouses” made a good headline, most coverage eventually disclosed that prospective buyers were required by law to “be financially able to maintain” the structure:
The transfer of these historic landmarks began with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, which was passed by Congress in 2000.
The act recognizes the significance of lighthouses for maritime traffic, coastal communities, nonprofits and enthusiasts. A total restoration could cost thousands of dollars, and the act requires new owners to be financially able to maintain the station for public education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes “at reasonable times and under reasonable conditions.”
SmithsonianMag.com’s article about the program mentioned the financial prerequisites, adding that “the lighthouses won’t be available to just anyone.” It appeared the lighthouses were only “free” to agencies and nonprofits, and any leftover lighthouses would be available for sale to individuals with a lot of money in the bank:
For now, the lighthouses won’t be available to just anyone. The GSA is first offering them at no cost to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofits, educational agencies and community development organizations. To be eligible, interested buyers must be able to maintain the historic property and allow the public to access it. More than 80 lighthouses have found a new owner—and stable future—through this process so far, according to the GSA.
Several of the lighthouses up for grabs this year are already under the care of nonprofits, which can apply to continue their work, Kelly tells the AP. For example, the Nobska Lighthouse in Falmouth, Massachusetts is maintained by the Friends of Nobska Light, which has applied for the transfer of ownership, according to the Cape Cod Times’ Zane Razzaq.
If no owner is found, the lighthouses will be offered for sale to the public via auction. The GSA has auctioned 70 lighthouses to date, in sales ranging from $10,000 to over $900,000, reports NPR’s Emma Bowman.
In late May and early June 2023, social media posts implied that the United States was “giving away free lighthouses.” Posts making the claim were discussing a U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) program through which decommissioned lighthouses are given away or sold. In actuality, the GSA’s “free lighthouses” were only available to agencies and governments. Any leftover lighthouses had an auction starting bid between $10,000 and $50,000, but anyone seeking to purchase a lighthouse was required by law to demonstrate they had the ability to restore and maintain the property.
A grain of truth existed in claims that the U.S. was “giving away free lighthouses,” which were purportedly available in extremely limited circumstances to a very narrow category of purchasers. The remaining lighthouses not only weren’t free, but anyone who could bid on one needed to have a significant amount of money available for maintenance. One lighthouse buyer spent $192,000 on their lighthouse, but estimated $1,000,000 in basic restoration costs and $50,000 to $100,000 in annual upkeep.