Donald Trump has made a lot of investments over his career. One of the flashiest, his purchase of Mar-A-Lago, also turned out to be one of the best. Trump paid an estimated $10 million for it in 1985 and turned it into a moneymaking club, before a rising real estate market made it one of the most valuable homes in the world. Today, the crown jewel of Palm Beach is worth an estimated $350 million.
The property, which the former president said the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided on Monday, was historic long before Trump got involved with it. The cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post built the estate from 1924 to 1927, incorporating details befitting the Roaring Twenties. Stones traveled from Genoa, Italy, via three ships. Silk-needlework panels came from an old palace in Venice. The living room rug hailed from a Spanish monastery.
In 1973, Post passed away, bequeathing Mar-A-Lago, which means “sea to lake” in Spanish, to the federal government, hoping it would be used as a presidential retreat. Richard Nixon traveled to Mar-A-Lago in July 1974 to see whether it might be a good spot at which to host foreign dignitaries. He stayed for less than an hour, before helicoptering back to Key Biscayne, Florida, where he had property of his own.
The government ultimately decided to give Mar-A-Lago back to the Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation, concerned about maintenance and security. The foundation then sold it in 1985 to Trump, who paid a reported $5 million for the house, $3 million for the furniture and $2 million for beachfront land across the road. At the time, the Manhattan mogul was coming off a series of victories, having renovated the Commodore Hotel near Grand Central Terminal and opened Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
Trump was also beginning to get ahead of himself. He purchased a USFL football team in 1983 and signed former Heisman Trophy winner (and future U.S. Senate candidate) Herschel Walker, personally guaranteeing the running back’s contract. Trump entered Atlantic City around the same time, spending lavishly on ill-fated casinos. He bought a 289-foot yacht, and in 1988, purchased New York City’s Plaza Hotel, paying a sum he admitted made no financial sense: “I haven’t purchased a building, I have purchased a masterpiece—the Mona Lisa,” he proclaimed in an advertisement trumpeting the sale. In 1992, the iconic hotel and two other Trump properties filed for bankruptcy. He lost control of several of his trophies.
Fortunately for him, he was able to hold on to Mar-A-Lago. In 1995, he turned the mansion into a private club. It operated that way for a couple of decades, hosting rich members and glitzy events. In 2015, Trump declared that he was running for president. His comments on the campaign trail turned off some customers, but others flocked to the place. In 2014, Mar-A-Lago generated an estimated $10 million a year of revenue. The year Trump announced his presidential run, sales jumped to an estimated $22 million. They continued to climb to an estimated $29 million the following year.
In a 2016 deposition, Trump fielded a question about how his campaign was impacting his business. “I could tell you one example where it has actually been very positive,” he said. “The manager told me recently. He said, ‘Boy, it is actually the best year we’ve ever had at Mar-a-Lago.’ And I was looking at the numbers. I said, ‘What do you attribute this to?’ He said, ‘The campaign.’”
After winning the election, Trump reportedly doubled the initiation fee to $200,000. As president, he took so many trips to his club that his administration began referring to it as the winter White House. In some ways, it was a fulfillment of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s dream. Trump hosted the late Shinzo Abe of Japan at Mar-A-Lago, as well as Xi Jinping of China. “We’ve just fired 59 missiles,” he told Xi, revealing a strike on Syria as they ate chocolate cake. Former Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who owns another mansion up the road from Mar-A-Lago, quipped that it was “after-dinner entertainment,” adding, “The thing was, it didn’t cost the president anything to have that entertainment.”
Post couldn’t have dreamed when she decided to give the mansion to the federal government that it would one day turn into a private enterprise under President Donald Trump. But in 2017, Trump’s first year in the White House, revenues hit $25 million. They trickled down to $23 million in 2018 and $21 million in 2019. By the time Covid-19 landed in 2020, Forbes estimated Mar-A-Lago was worth $170 million. In typical fashion, the Trump Organization argued its value was “closer to $500 million.”
Then something remarkable happened. While many of Trump’s businesses flailed about in the early days of the pandemic, Mar-A-Lago held on, with revenues landing at an estimated $23 million in 2020. At that point, the real estate market took off, thanks to a flood of wealthy Northeasterners who rushed to Palm Beach like never before. “The Covid situation has driven a lot of these New York and Connecticut people down to Florida earlier than possibly they would have,” local broker Jeff Cloninger said in March 2021. “We’ve got a situation right now where the housing market is absolutely beyond on fire.”
That $500 million figure, absurd at the time that the Trump Organization proposed it, suddenly became somewhat reasonable. Real estate experts outside of Palm Beach guessed that the place was worth more than $200 million. Brokers on the island thought it could be worth far more, with the most aggressive estimate coming in at $725 million. When Forbes last valued the property in March, we went with a conservative $350 million. If Trump sold Mar-A-Lago for that amount, he’d reap a 35 times return on his original $10 million investment, making it one of the best deals of his career.
There’s no question that Trump has made a fortune on the place. He has even used it to set himself up for tax savings, changing his official domicile from high-tax New York to no-tax Florida a few years ago. The market has recently leveled off, and things have gotten quieter around Mar-A-Lago. “The day after he was president, it went from chaos to quiet pretty quickly,” Isaac Klein, a local broker, said in an interview Monday, noting that it would be difficult to even tell that a former president lived at the property.
Until the FBI showed up.