Every Saturday at noon and 4 p.m., folks can click onto Instagram or YouTube and see some truly weird homes. Using their phones, the homeowners walk you through their houses and point out some of the highlights.
Host David Neff asks questions and encourages the homeowner to focus on particular elements. The audience then can type in questions: Where did they get those ant sculptures on the wall? What about that "Now Serving" sign in the bathroom?
There’s always a story with every collectible.
Neff and his wife, Chelle Neff, started the Weird Homes Tour in 2014 after they had their own curiosities about a home in their North Austin neighborhood that looked like the Alamo. "What’s going on there?" and "Who lives there?" were some of the questions running through their heads.
They joked that they should just go on a Weird Homes Tour to find out.
David Neff did some research and found that no such tour existed. It was the same year they were buying a house and getting married, so why not throw in starting a homes tour, too?
They’ve since written the book "Weird Homes: The People and Places That Keep Austin Strangely Wonderful," and expanded the tour to Detroit, San Francisco, Portland, New Orleans, Houston and San Antonio. They hope to head to Brooklyn next.
The Austin tour was scheduled for April 18 this year, but when COVID-19 shut down public gatherings, the Weird Homes Tour had to pivot. That weekend it hosted its first virtual tour with Brandon Hodge’s Austin home. Hodge is a collector of Ouija boards and other items used for connecting with the dearly departed. His home was supposed to be on the tour this year for the second time.
The owner of the South Congress Avenue stores Big Top Candy and Monkey See, Monkey Do says he’s always been fascinated with the afterlife and ghost stories, but his collection began when he came to Austin to go to the University of Texas and worked in the Barton Creek Square magic store Lonestar Illusions. He started collecting antiques to go with the bizarre magic act he was creating.
"The collecting bug stuck around," Hodge says. "The performance went around the turn of the century."
When Hodge gave his Weird Homes virtual tour, he says, he got some unexpected questions. "I was so thrilled they asked about one little detail in the background," he says. "I put so much work into that detail."
And while he says, "nothing can replace the visceral experience of exploring something in person," right now it’s about people getting creative with sharing in interesting ways and creating new experiences.
Weird Homes Tour chose Instagram as its platform because it is a fairly easy way for social media novices to be able to handle giving such a tour. That doesn’t mean there isn’t practice. Every Friday, Neff and that Saturday’s tour homeowner do a run through.
So far, it’s gone well, and they’ve had as many as 200 people participating on Saturdays at once.
"It’s a very interesting way for people to interact with us," Neff says. Each tour asks for donations through Venmo or PayPal to allow Weird Homes Tour to continue to operate and pay its employees.
Hodge, who has a lot of social media experience, has been the guinea pig for Weird Homes Tour in this time of the coronavirus. The tour has started a partnership with Atlas Obscura, which offers in-person tours of obscure things. Now Atlas Obscura will offer virtual tours of obscure things, including some Weird Homes Tour homes. Hodge’s will be the first one.
Weird Homes Tour also created downloadable classes for $4.99 to rent and $9.99 to buy. The first one is a show-and-tell with Hodge’s collection. There’s also a class on renovating a historic home with the owners of a house in Bartlett that was once a bank, and a class on home rentals.
This time of the coronavirus has created a new opportunity to feature homes that are not in cities where the Weird Homes Tour has events. The Bartlett bank is a good example of that.
It’s also created relationships with other homeowners who weren’t on the tour’s radar. On May 9, the virtual tour headed to Sixth Street to see the sophisticated Graeber home, which many people would never believe exists above a street lined with bars and restaurants.
The tours will return to an in-person format sometime in the fall.
What makes a good, weird home? It’s definitely not a hoarder.
"Our homes are clean; they look like a gallery space where people’s art is inside that gallery space," Neff says. And then, perhaps there’s a foosball table painted and flipped and hung on the wall, he says.
"It’s someone who has every piece of Kiss memorabilia," Neff says. It’s folks like Hodge, who has a collection that is carefully displayed in a museum-like setting, or it’s an artist who has painted their entire house including the driveway with hundreds of colors. Or it’s a shipping container turned into a home in New Orleans.
"They’re all radically different people; none of the homes are the same," he says.
What about the home that looked like the Alamo that started this all? "We rang the doorbell; we left them a note; we never heard back," Neff said.
There are other great white whales that Neff is trying to nab as well, such as a gingerbread house in the South Congress and West Mary Street area that looks like it was built in Bavaria in 1952 and transported here. And there’s a giant stone structure in Houston that looks exactly like Darth Vader’s helmet from "Star Wars." They’ve mailed the owner a letter. They’ve sent him Tiff’s Treats.
"Who turns down Tiff’s Treats?" Neff says.