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What is a Spite House?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Legal disputes involving real estate or inherited property can be very contentious, and occasionally a dissatisfied or disgruntled party will do something completely irrational simply out of malice towards the other party. One form of revenge is the planning and construction of a spite house, a building which serves little purpose except to be a nuisance or distraction for others. A spite house may be designed to be completely out of proportion with the surrounding neighborhood, for example.

If a property owner controls a narrow strip of land, he or she may build an equally narrow and largely uninhabitable house on it just to block the light or view of a neighboring building. Sometimes a property owner will refuse to sell a small but valuable piece of urban property to developers, then design a so-called "skinny house" in order to occupy the space between two adjacent buildings. Sometimes the builder will live in the spite house himself or herself, or else he or she may decide to rent the building to less-than-desirable tenants.

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Many times the construction of a spite house is the result of a family dispute over property rights or an inheritance. Siblings may passionately disagree over the terms of a will which appears to divide the inherited property unevenly, for example. The sibling with the smaller piece of property could build a completely disproportional spite house which effectively blocks the view of the other sibling's home or creates other malicious distractions. While some states do have laws and provisions against the construction of spite houses, many times a disgruntled property owner cannot be legally prevented from constructing a viable but clearly provocative building on his or her property. He or she may also be able to paint the house in a number of color and design schemes and add impractical or intrusive items such as tall spires or non-functional chimneys.

There are a number of recognized spite houses in existence across the United States, but many of the more famous ones are located in the northeast section. One famous spite house in New York City was constructed by an eccentric doctor who refused to sell a narrow strip of land to a developer for $1000 USD. When the developer balked at the doctor's suggested price, the doctor decided he would build his own apartment complex on a strip of land only five feet wide and 100 feet long. The doctor and his family lived in one section of the house and rented out the other units to presumably very thin tenants. The apartments required customized furnishing and extremely narrow stairways, but they were considered legally inhabitable. The spite house did manage to block the large bay windows installed on one side of the adjacent apartment complex. After a number of years, the doctor's property fell under the control of developers who didn't share the doctor's sense of vengeance and ordered the building to be torn down.

If a storefront or house in an urban setting appears to be unusually narrow or completely out of context with the neighboring properties, it may indeed be a spite house. While some spite houses were not designed to be especially habitable, others have a certain charm because of their eccentric floor plans or jarring exteriors. A spite house which has survived the wrecking ball is often a tourist attraction in many urban neighborhoods.

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