When a house in the charming Silicon Valley town of Palo Alto sold for a record-tying $30 million back in 2017, many local real estate professionals expressed shock over the price. The 7,550-square-foot structure, while large and attractive, had been last assessed at a mere $1.5 million and is located in leafy Professorville, a quiet neighborhood near Stanford University not known for excessive displays of wealth. At least one randy naysayer even suggested the recorded price might be a typo, courtesy of a sloshed deputy assessor.
But records confirm the house actually did transfer for the aforementioned $30 million, an amount that remains the most ever paid for a Palo Alto residential property. This in a city home to a slew of Forbes-listed billionaires, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Larry Page and Emerson Collective’s Laurene Powell Jobs.
Some observers speculated that the mysterious buyer — listed in records only as the “Jones Family Trust” — was a developer looking to raze the mansion and subdivide the .95-acre lot. As it turns out, however, that wasn’t the case, though the buyer did indeed demolish the home. Behind the trust is a 47-year-old man named Brian Acton, a very non-developer billionaire. And the $30 million teardown is only one small part of his multi-pronged Palo Alto real estate story.
Over the last five years, Acton has spent a mind-bending collective total of $86.25 million on seven Palo Alto houses, many of them fairly modest abodes and all located on the same discreet Professorville block. Save for one case, all seven of the transactions were inked quietly off-market, without the properties ever having been publicly listed for sale.
Fashioning multi-parcel residential compounds is hardly foreign behavior to billionaires in general or even billionaires in Palo Alto — Zuckerberg, Page and Powell Jobs have also purchased some of their neighbors’ homes. But Acton’s case stands out as an anomaly. With several of these properties, it appears he may have paid double, or even triple, their actual market value. And the total price point — nearly $90 million for the land alone — easily exceeds the amount paid by any of his fellow local billionaires.
In 2009, Acton co-founded the WhatsApp messaging service with his business partner Jan Koum. By 2014, the app had 600 million active users worldwide. When the company was sold to Facebook that same year for an unprecedented $19 billion, both founders became billionaires several times over. Acton remained with WhatsApp for a time, but had a very public falling-out with Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg over concerns about data privacy and disagreements on how to properly monetize the platform. In early 2018, as the Cambridge Analytica data scandal unfolded, Acton tweeted #DeleteFacebook — unsurprisingly, things between him and his former company have remained frosty since.
Still, Acton has clearly not let any tension drive him from Palo Alto, where his compound is located just one mile from Zuckerberg’s multi-structure estate. What the up-and-coming philanthropist — he recently established the Signal Foundation, endowing it with $50 million of his own funds — plans to do with his properties is unknown.
Nearly all of Acton’s seven homes remain visibly unaltered, save for the largest structure — the $30 million mansion — which was recently demolished and is set to be replaced by a contemporary residence. But it’s a safe bet not all of his Palo Alto neighbors will receive a housewarming invite.