Not long ago, Richard Neal, a 51-year-old software salesman in Charlotte, N.C., was killing time on a slow day at work, surfing the Web. "I had always heard that you could get fantastic deals on surplus government property," says Neal, who comes off as a straight arrow not prone to making impulse purchases. Typing North Carolina into the GSA website (the General Services Administration, in addition to its lavish spending habits, is known for unloading Uncle Sam's surplus property) brought up exactly what one might expect--worn-out prefab buildings, post offices, an old bank, ugly things. But then something caught Neal's eye: a special search function just for lighthouses. Soon he found himself looking at what appeared to be an oil rig in the Atlantic Ocean. The government's online brochure included photos of the hulking 85-ft.-high platform with a light tower, a helicopter deck and 5,000 sq. ft. of ransacked living quarters. Inside, he says, "it looked like Animal House after the big frat party."
He had stumbled upon--and hastily bid on--one of the 84 lighthouses that have traded hands over the past decade as part of the federal government's lighthouse-disposal program. Automated lights, not to mention radar and GPS, have pretty much made manned lighthouses obsolete as navigation aids, but the structures have found new life as waterfront real estate. Some have been converted into private residences, others into museums, and increasingly they're occupying a niche as something in between. Along the nation's perimeter, including the coasts of the Great Lakes, dozens of historic lighthouses offer overnight stays as bed-and-breakfasts, vacation rentals or volunteer-keeper programs that make guests pay for the privilege of running the place (including cleaning visitors' restrooms) for a week or two. "Originally, my quest was to stay at every lighthouse in the country that I could," says San Diego electrical engineer Kraig Anderson, who keeps a list of such places at LighthouseFriends.com "But it's not going to happen. There are just too many new ones offering overnight accommodations."
People who buy old lighthouses and fix them up do it for love, not because these purchases are especially practical. Lighthouses are expensive to restore and maintain, and the ones that the GSA has sold tend to come with a host of restrictions. There are rules for renovating historic structures. Some lighthouses are still considered active aids for navigation, meaning that the Coast Guard requires 24/7 access in case anything goes wrong. They are often hard to get to--and hardly posh. Neal warns adventure travelers considering a weekend at his offshore B&B, whose grand opening is in May, that the accommodations are "rustic," by which he means "covered in rust."
His lighthouse, which charges $300 for a two-night stay, not including transportation, stands above a notorious underwater hazard known as the Frying Pan Shoals off the coast of the Carolinas. The shallows swallowed many a ship before the lighthouse was installed in 1966, and its proximity to the deeper waters of the Gulf Stream make it an ideal place to fish, so Neal is hoping anglers and wreck divers--many perhaps traveling the 60 nautical miles from Myrtle Beach, S.C., a popular seaside destination--will help recoup some of the $85,000 he and several friends kicked in to buy the place and the $25,000 they have spent so far on repairs.