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Creators of Weird Homes Tour retire from bringing wacky to Austinites, world

David J. and Chelle Neff started Weird Homes Tour in Austin and grew it to several other cities before deciding in June to retire from hosting the tour.

David J. and Chelle Neff are turning in the keys to the Weird Homes Tour.

The Neffs started the annual tour in 2014 after walking by a home in North Austin that looked like the Alamo and wondering "who lives there?" and "what does it look like inside?"

The tour has been known for finding an eclectic assortment of homes, each with a story. Sometimes it's the people: an interesting artist or a collector of anything from items with giraffes on them or Matchbox cars. Sometimes it's the house itself: one that was designed to look like a nautilus or one that was once a bank. 

"We're just retiring," David J. Neff says, though they are open to conversations with anyone who wants to take over the tour, which has been the couple's side project.

David J. Neff is a vice president of consulting at digital optimization agency Clearhead. Chelle Neff owns Urban Betty salons.

Before the pandemic, Weird Homes Tour had expanded to host tours in New Orleans, Portland, Detroit, San Francisco, New York and Orlando. The Neffs even wrote a book about the weird homes they had encountered. 

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Then the pandemic happened. Weird Homes Tour couldn't host in-person tours into people's homes. Instead, the tour started weekly Instagram events with homeowners showing off their spaces using their phones' video cameras. The company also recorded tours on YouTube, and Weird Homes Tours partnered with Atlas Obscura to show off some of the homes they had regularly featured.

"It's been so much work to make it happen at all for the last year and a half with everything COVID," Neff says of the pivot to virtual.

Brandon Hodge's 'Planchette House' was a staple in the Weird Homes Tour in Austin. planchettes are devices used to navigate Ouija boards and other mystical objects.

In the end, there was a notable difference. It wasn't as satisfying to watch a video or go on Instagram compared to actually being inside the home, Neff says.

Instead of selling 2,000 tickets for a physical tour; the company sold 700 for a virtual one. As the pandemic continued, Neff says, "when it came to paid online events, people are just exhausted. We're on Zoom; we're on Teams; we're on Google Hangouts. ... They don't want to stare at their screens forever."

When thinking about relaunching the tour in-person this summer, Weird Homes Tour surveyed its regulars and its homeowners. Their answers: "It was OK to go to a restaurant," he says, "but they were still a little worried about going into someone else's houses." 

Homeowners also weren't ready to have the public inside their homes, he says.

The Sand Dollar House was built in 1979 with Frank Lloyd Wright influences. It was part of the virtual 2020 Weird Homes Tour in Austin.

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Weird Homes Tour was not the only tour that has gone virtual. Preservation Austin now has done two virtual tours. Austin Modern Home happened in-person before the pandemic shutdown in 2020 and hosted a virtual one this March. American Institute of Architects Austin chapter hosted a virtual tour in October last year and plans a hybrid version for Oct. 15-18. National Association of the Remodeling Industry's Austin chapter is planning to resume its tour in April 2022. 

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Two in-person tours already have happened this year because they were outdoor tours. Both the Austin Pond Society and Austin Outdoor Living Tour were in-person in June.

The decision to retire from Weird Homes Tour came as the Neffs were beginning new projects. They are working on a shampoo and conditioner line tied to Urban Betty that is expected to be available later this year. David Neff is also an investor in Neon Syndicate, an investment firm for consumer products and real estate. 

Neff's hope is that Weird Homes Tour encouraged folks to think differently about their own homes. 

"I hope that people who went on our tour and said, 'I've always wanted a purple wall in my home. I'm going to paint it,'" he says.

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