Nipton, California, sits just 63 miles from Las Vegas but is worlds away from its gilded, spangled skyline. Surrounded by craggy, gray hills and swathes of nut-brown desert, the unincorporated town hugs the border of the Mojave National Preserve. Amenities include: a general store, a five-room hotel, a restaurant, and a few RV parking spots. And you can buy it for $5.2 million.
I found Nipton after searching online for towns for sale around the country. There aren’t many. Cal-Nev-Ari (named for the first three letters of the three states it’s close to) and Swett, South Dakota, are two others on the block. But Nipton had a certain folksy charm that appealed to me. Curious about how you actually go about buying a town, I headed to California to check it out.
The town’s broker, Tony Castrignano, is a tall, pleasant man originally from Pennsylvania who has known Nipton’s owners for about 15 years. We met on a sunny, still day in December in the parking lot of the town’s restaurant — Nana’s Railroad Cafe, which was closed. The general store was open, however, as was the hotel, which was hosting two tourists in from London.
Castrignano took me on a tour that began with the hotel, which has a cactus garden dating from the 1920s and once hosted Clara Bow, an actress from the silent film era. The hotel’s guestbook has pages and pages of guest signatures from as far away as Germany and Switzerland.
Credit for the town’s charm is due to the current owner, who kept some original structures, like the hotel, intact. Several cats roam the property. Jim, the caretaker, joked (twice) that he had “the only cathouse in town, cause I’m feeding 15 cats back there.” The rest of the town’s land is sparse, dotted with crimson cowboy cabins, an old schoolhouse, and solar panels. It also has well water, a hot desert commodity. All of these structures are included in the town’s price.
But what makes a town a town? It’s complicated and varies by state. Nipton, for instance, was designated a town over 100 years ago by the state government, and once had a post office and a school. The current owner’s husband, Gerald Freeman, bought it in 1984 and revitalized it from an abandoned gold-mining town. He has since passed away, and his wife is selling it because the town is getting hard to handle in her old age.
“The thing about Nipton ... is that there’s 80 acres and less than 20 percent of it’s being used,” Castrignano explained. That’s how it differs from a town like Cal-Nev-Ari, which has privately owned homes that aren’t for sale. In Nipton, you can own the whole thing and do with it what you will. “The solar field can be expanded, there could be a water company, all kinds of things,” he said. “We have a lot of people looking at it who want to do greenhouses out there.”
But this flexibility makes the buying process more difficult. A buyer needs to come with a plan for developing the land and an estimate on what that would cost. And if you do want to make an offer, you’ll need proof of funds, whether in the form of a bank letter or statement, to prove you have enough to close the escrow. “If you’re writing an offer on a development of this size, you have to show the seller you’re capable of doing this,” says Castrignano. And oh yeah: You’ll have to pay cash. Unsurprisingly, “There’s not a lot of financing available on things like this.”
Unfortunately, these requirements (so much money) ruled out the possibility of me becoming the proud owner of a shiny (actually pretty dusty) parcel of Southwestern land. But that didn’t stop me from mentally breaking ground on a swimming pool and hanging up fresh curtains in the hotel as Castignano showed me the rest of Nipton. I could make bank selling water to nearby mining towns. Hell, the potential of the old schoolhouse alone practically had me salivating.
But I also had my eye on another town, a half hour up the road from Nipton, on the market for $8 million. And that’s because it has a functioning casino filled with functioning slot machines. (I was a recent convert to this whole “gambling” thing, having done so for the first time in Vegas the night prior. I put $20 on black in roulette, won immediately, and walked away $20 richer.)
But I’m no fool: The real money is in casino ownership. The Bellagio had a whole room filled with polar bears and Christmas elves made from flowers. Still, while the process for buying Cal-Nev-Ari was less complicated than Nipton (you don’t have to pay cash, for one), separate negotiations would be needed to acquire the casino, according to town broker Fred Marik. So there went my all-in-one funding plan.
Other people are interested, though — and seriously. Nipton has two offers on the table, while Cal-Nev-Ari has three. Whomever eventually becomes their owners will have a lot to consider. Castrignano said, “When you’re buying a home, you’re getting a place to live, but when you’re buying a commercial piece of real estate — which is what this is — it’s an investment.”
But buying a town isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. While the Rose family of Schitt’s Creek was able to buy a town, things kind of went downhill from there. To find out what happens, tune in to the show’s third season on Pop, Wednesdays at 8/7c. Find your channel on poptv.com
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer at Studio@Gizmodo. She tweets here.
Photos by Steven Polletta.