Sunday, February 24, 2013

New, Nice = Big?

One of our Blog friends has recently been home hunting and in her struggle to find what she's after, it has been mentioned that there was a low supply of Nice Small Homes.  Putting myself in her shoes, always a dangerous endeavor, got me thinking about the difficulty she's experiencing and what I consider to possibly be broader implications.

In very general terms, during the go-go years of real estate and new construction, we've associated Nice with Large.  I know there are exceptions; the Architectural and Home Building magazines will often feature small homes that are efficient, space saving and designed to feel comfortable with smaller footprints, built with and for efficient design.  The problem is that we don't, or weren't, building that way and most of us only wanted to see these homes in magazines, not next door.

While we were building our own home, the first and then, often last question was "how many square feet?" as if nothing else really mattered.  Three thousand was definitely better than two thousand and then one thousand.....well....that's the place where you park ONE car.  My numerical answer, full of hope, excitement and anticipation often was the shortest path to the conversation's end.  We wanted only a few 'special' things, not extravagant in any way, and were basically told that adding those types of things in our home's price range were not feasible, meaning that no one was going to help us build (or loan us money for) a 1500 sq. ft. house that would cost what a 2000 sq. ft one would.  We built our own.

There is a regional component to this; different areas of the country I'm sure are in and have passed through different phases.  Of course the socioeconomic conditions of an area or region play into practices and whatever may be called standards.  My comments are aimed toward the southern areas of Wisconsin, an area, again very generally, for the most part quite well off and affluent.

All I've got is anecdotal; I spend a lot of time visiting (riding through) southern Wisconsin, the area in which our home-hunting friend has been shopping for something at least in many ways, is similar to the home which she recently sold.  Thankfully I've not shopped for or been in any way associated with the hunt for real estate in 25 years.  Most of the areas I visit our rural, with those homes that are new, normally quite large, my guess is serving as bedroom 'communities' for larger towns and even cities within what those fortunate enough, consider to be commutable distances.  The area is heavily and primarily populated by farms area-wise and their homes are a different category all together.

Whatever the supply is, there hasn't been a real demand for small, from those that could afford "nice".  Sure, around small targeted areas there may be exceptions, possibly near University towns, a rare tourist area here and there where there was a special reason a builder might build something that didn't look big from the street or road "out front".  In general, our part of the Midwest is spacious and historically there's been no justifiable reason to build small when big is what most of us have thought we want, need or should have.  Even when the home isn't big inside, it's been designed to look that way from the curb.  Small is almost always old or very soon will be.

There are so many metrics involved; the potential of payback for improvements made to an older home, current energy prices vs. payback, the idea that energy efficiency can more easily be put "into" a new home that's selling for $300K than in one selling for $150K, the challenges of upgrading an existing home for existing homeowners in today's market, etc.  Is someone more likely to pay $70/sq. ft. for 1000 or $60/sq. ft. for 2000?  Who is currently living in the small home, an elderly couple or widow/widower and how much would or should anyone spend to enhance it?

Closing my eyes and from memory, I can see dozens of rural locations, large paved driveways, and through the exposed winter woods if not visible in mid-summer, a 'nice' 3 story home, pole barn, other various out buildings, often a horse or two; a vision that was common 5 years ago.  Over the last couple of years, those same driveways might very well have the Kubota w/loader and mower, a motorhome, a boat and snowmobile trailer w/sleds, all out in front with For Sale signs.

It seems inevitable that things will change.  I wouldn't even call it pessimism, maybe more accurately a blend of pragmatism, but I doubt very much that our kids will find themselves in the type of homes that there seem to be so many of.  So what does that mean?

I make no pretense as to being aware of or of closely following current trends or to know anything about modern home design.  I am only slightly aware of and often find European styling (and size) to be appealing in so many ways and think there are plenty of proven examples of what may be ahead as our new home construction evolves.

I jokingly thought to myself when reading our friend's blog about her difficulties that it was too bad we couldn't start chopping up some of the big homes that are or might soon be available and making two or three from one.  Appreciating that big doesn't always mean well-built or energy efficient, those things do for the most part go together with new construction it seems.

Housing, beyond keeping us warm and dry, is a very personal thing and we come at it and gravitate toward its core in so many different ways.  My attitude, now that I've owned and lived in a few, has evolved as well and that goes beyond just the current state of market conditions.  My expectations, wants and needs are different than they've been in the past; sometimes it takes a bit of poking, a look around and stepping away to look back inside in order to appreciate that.

A real hodge-podge mix of thoughts here, all part of thought threads that have been running through me since the discussion of Nice and Small first came up.

In general, I'd say our friend's timing is not in sync with conditions.....she's early and part of a trend she doesn't necessarily want to lead.


Your thoughts very welcome.....


  1. Good post and all good points and thoughts to consider.

    Wisconsin is rural. BIG farms. And then whatever do we do with the farmer's widow or ol' Dad when he can't farm anymore? Condo or small house. Often, the elders just live out their lives there with a bit of garden. And that's fine. But then trends changed and old folks got put away and little houses just fell into disrepair.

    I'm remembering some of the small highly prized houses in the Western states where all the groovy Yuppies move to. I think if small towns like Baraboo would encourage this type of resident these little old houses would get some respect. But then the houses would cost more and taxes would spike. When Yuppies add real improvements to a town most residents can't afford to live there anymore!

    There are just as many of those bi and tri-level houses of the 80s melting down, too. Foreclosures have just made things so much worse. Like wading thru a wasteland.

    The new and cool housing around Madison is, of course, condos. "Zero lot" housing is an abomination to me. I can't cope with the idea of being boxed up and stacked. It's just not for me. But...until I fill my little bag of money back up I don't have much choice.

    I grew up in an industrial town, a union town. Small houses, well cared for and pride of ownership. That's what I'm used to. So much of this comes down to finances and priorities.

  2. It does come down to finances and priorities, both items getting kicked around a lot these days. We're going through various bumps, I'm thinking we're not done and some of what's ahead may get rougher.

    The homes you were familiar with as a youngster are alive and well in the Twin Cities, not everywhere, but in many neighborhoods. New, young families are moving in as the transition happens. They are enhancing small, doing extensive remodeling, often doing more with the small spaces or building up rather than out; many full second stories are being put on top of bungalows.

    As you mention, taxes there are high, other costs high and without a long term commitment and very often, two very decent incomes, even small homes in those neighborhoods can be a huge stretch.

    There are some interesting concepts, outliers homes with mom-in-law quarters, allowing for independent living and yet shared walls, the efficiencies of combined utilities, etc. I recently saw for lack of remembering exactly what they were called, 'Pods' or pre-fabbed units that could be tucked in a back yard or on a driveway, small independent living for that student that isn't ready to fly yet or the elder parent needing something pre-nursing home.

    So there's what we'll need....and then there's what we have.

    Personally? We're happy here now, but it won't fit forever and it quite possibly is something we've outgrown and refuse to accept. With my age, passions, how I realistically spend my time, I doubt I'd be looking to own and that's taking the economy, changing other conditions, my/our health, age, etc. into account. I no longer need to feel as comfortable with "mine" as I once did. Being a bit more flexible, responsible for other things now deemed more important and more closely aligned with how we're actually living should probably have us taking another look at our choices, which we still are fortunate enough to have.....many of us do if we're honest about it.

    It really is or should be a balancing act, as long as we properly load the balance and allow it to settle.

    I appreciate the difficulty for those struggling through it now and we all should be paying attention.

  3. "Dad's been podded." Sigh. But I certainly understand the problems. What to do with our changing society!

    That's why stats show so many moving away from rural areas. Heartbreaking, but understandable. Seems to me that if wages go down in WI and unions go bust that people won't be able to afford anything. Grab one of those nice little houses while you can!

    I don't have any relative to burden with my aging, so I won't get "podded". I know a man who was raised on a large farm and has lived working outdoors his whole life, now in his late 70s. If he left his wonderful home and forest he would be dead within 6 months. There are great emotional issues to consider as well as physical.

    When I moved from a rural life to an apt many years ago, I remember having to drive to a park to listen to birds sing and wind in the trees. I thought my heart would burst. I fear that loss again.

    1. I understand your as well as your friend's dilemma of moving to surroundings less rural, but I think there's lots of 'middle', doesn't really have to be either or. There are places to live/own/rent that aren't metro, or even near the city.

      We are all, thankfully different. Mom is in the house that I was a little shaver in and doesn't want to leave, much if not most of that is emotional. Even when her physical limitations are such a huge factor, she needs to be where she is for 'health' reasons and we're not going to move her because, all things considered, she's exactly where she belongs.

      There are many others who don't belong there and hopefully they've found places that are a better fit.

      In our situation, again, everyone's is different and I more than appreciate that, we live in the midst of beauty and solitude, yet we don't often get to enjoy it as we should. I spend an hour and a half mowing once a week on some of the nicest evenings our area has to offer. I don't hate it, geez, for the first few weeks it's fun. There is absolutely nothing like that first mowing in the spring....lush heavy grass and six month-old doggie doo :)

      While it's true our area may have parks and areas of quiet that are more in abundance than some other areas, it's a very wide spread gift (part of our costs) in the Midwest. In my mind, lovely parks, gardens, flowers that experts take care of (we're not) are only a minutes away. They are 'ours' by virtue of our contributions and there for us to share. We under utilize them, all that much better for those that do.

      Pets, garden hobbies, building projects, the list is long; all of those things that make our places of abode special should stay that way if we can possibly have them. Time spent on them should accurately reflect our enjoyment and priority level; some amount of nice return for effort put in.

      I don't mean to criticize or poke at anyone else's choices, but feel comfortable poking at mine once in awhile to maintain some perspective. Some habits are really good, some might just hold me back and I'd like to keep them in check.

      Enough, I'm out of words and was probably out of ideas long ago. I just finished a very heavily fortified pot, kettle, wok?? of fried rice and now I need to go out to the shop and see if the Helix is ready for its annual check up. My guess it will more than willing to get inside where it's warm and say "ahhhhh".

  4. Good post Coop.

    I am usually amazed at the size of houses whether in new subdivisions or riding through rural areas on the bikes.

    We bought our home 6.5 years ago. We told our realtors we wanted a tiny house on a larger lot. They managed to find us a 912 sq ft house on a 1/5 of an acre in the city. Sure it needed work but it was hard to find one this small. As we've renovated we've though to keep the costs down,, but quality higher on what we've done. We've gutted the one bathroom and gutted the kitchen and moved some walls to make things more function but have had to be cautious of cost in case we decide to sell it, we can't overprice a 912 sq ft house.

    My boss and his wife just built a house a few years ago 3000 sq ft for just the two of them. The PI we use at work has the same size for just he and his wife too - no kids.

    I peruse local real estate listings some times just for chuckles and I am always surprised when they list a 1500 sq ft house as a "small cabin". Sad that a house that large is considered small.

    All a matter of perspective I guess.

  5. Thanks Brandy, it's so common that many of us have pursued a bigger, more expansive home and when we finally get there, we might not need it or really know what to do with it any longer. One of my friends in her 60's, lamenting the care that their large home requires, has quipped "we should just live in a camper". She doesn't mean it but it can make a nice dream to escape in sometimes.

    We're at a point that our house could really use some updating. It seems prudent that we use real caution about what we choose to do. For a long time, "it's an investment" worked but I'm scared that,, as you mention, we could easily price our place out of the market. We just might not make it back.