The N.D.A. In Silicon Valley Real Estate

As an information technology (I.T.) worker in Silicon Valley, I’ve signed many Non-Disclosure Agreements (N.D.A.s) over the years to keep secret anything that I learn during the course of my employment. Due to the nature of my work in I.T. support, I seldom have access to privilege information that an outsider might find valuable. I’m not surprise to read in The New York Times that the N.D.A. culture has come to real estate in Silicon Valley, as newly minted millionaires—or billionaire, in the case of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—renovate their McMansions.

These powerful documents, demanding the utmost secrecy, are being required of anyone associated with the homes of a small but growing number of tech executives, according to real estate agents, architects and contractors. Sometimes the houses themselves are bought through trusts or corporate entities so that the owners’ names are not on public deeds.

Requiring construction workers to sign N.D.A.s raise more questions about who the owner is than it does to protect the owner’s privacy. Most N.D.A.s has a time limit. After several years goes by, nothing prevents a construction worker from revealing that the bathroom fixtures were solid gold, the kitchen counters were from handpicked marble slabs from Italy, and the multi-level garage has a car elevator. If wealthy owners want to maintain their privacy, they should dial down their public display of conspicuous consumption.

A 92-year-old Vermont man passed away recently, surprising family and friends when he left an $8 million stock portfolio to the local library and non-profit hospital. He drove around in a 2007 Toyota Yaris, collected tree branches for firewood, and held his winter coat together with a safety-pin. Because he lived a modest lifestyle that didn’t draw unwanted attention, no one knew he was wealthy.

My father built the planter walls for the million-dollar homes in the Silver Creek Valley area. The conspicuous consumption offended his Great Depression sensibilities with so much money wasted on so few people. That the city of San Jose spent $200 million to extend water and sewer into the arid foothills offended my own sensibilities. If you throw enough campaign contributions at city hall, you too can get taxpayer money to run water uphill. We both gloated over the news that the homeowner association nearly filed for bankruptcy after the Great Recession, as the million-dollar homes stood empty and the remaining residents balked at paying higher fees to maintain the common areas.

My brother’s in-laws bought a million-dollar home in the foothills of Gilroy, which I thought was obscene. The kitchen was larger than my studio apartment, and the wet bar was bigger than my kitchen. The in-laws bought the five-bedroom house to store family heirloom furniture that they couldn’t depart with but weren’t using anyway. Since they didn’t want to spend their retirement years cleaning a big house, they sold the house in a short sale and moved their furniture collection to a farmstead outside of Boston. The only cool thing I liked about that house was the 30-foot-tall wired fence that kept a prowling mountain cat away from the BBQ pit.

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