Wednesday, October 10, 2012

new home buyers trade space for community

While much of the nation has been racked by the real estate bust in recent years, the D.C. area escaped largely unscathed. However, one thing has changed: buyers want smaller homes, and builders are listening.

Down Midtown Road
Stormy Skies Over Maple Lawn
New homes at Maple Lawn in 2006 (above) and today (below).

The homes in each photo were built at Maple Lawn, the planned community north of Burtonsville in Howard County, by local builder Miller & Smith. The first photo is of the Foxhall model, which they sold between 2005 and 2007. (Miller & Smith tends to name their homes after urban neighborhoods or themes.) It measured about 3,400 square feet, not counting the basement, and it sold for upwards of $800,000.

Here's how Miller & Smith described it on their website:
The Foxhall Collection features 10' high ceilings, a gracious two-story entry foyer, formal living room and dining room with butler's pantry, spacious great room, 21st century kitchen and sunny breakfast room. Tucked away, the hobby/tech room makes an excellent study or children's homework area. Outside, enjoy your own private courtyard - perfect for entertaining! Upstairs, there is a sumptuous master suite with sitting room and luxury bath: plus 3 more bedrooms. Expansion options include finished lower level and bonus room. Over 3,400 sq ft of living space for today's active families!

The second photo is of the Fells Point and Gramercy Park models, which are for sale now. These homes have about 2,300 and 2,800 square feet, respectively, not including the basement. And they're much cheaper, each selling for less than $600,000.

From the descriptions, you can see how the interiors of each house have changed:
Fells Point: An open floorplan connects the great room and dining room to a fabulous kitchen with Infinity Island. Upstairs there's a dreamy master suite with luxury features including two walk-in closets.

Gramercy Park: A dramatic, open design with a stylish kitchen including an Infinity Island and the opportunity for a plenty of natural light. A separate dining room and study complete the main level.

Six years ago, Miller & Smith emphasized the Foxhall's two-story foyer and formal living and dining rooms, spaces that look good but are rarely used and require extra maintenance. Today, they stress the "openness" of the Fells Point and Gramercy Park.

Visiting the models of both houses last weekend, I was surprised to find almost no walls on the ground floor. The Gramercy Park has a formal dining room but no living room, while the Fells Point has neither. The master bathroom, which architectural critic Witold Rybczynski once called "America's latest status symbol," is reduced to a sink, toilet and shower.

These houses are 1/3 smaller and 1/4 cheaper than what was built before, but the hardwood floors and granite countertops are still there. Buyers can save money and reduce their energy use, but without sacrificing comfort or luxury.

Gramercy Park + Fells Point Models
The Gramercy Park (left) and Fells Point (right) models are 1/3 smaller than homes built in 2006.

However, smaller homes aren't just a Maple Lawn or even a D.C.-area phenomenon. New homes are shrinking across the country.

Part of the trend may be coming from younger buyers, who just don't want or care about all that extra space. Nancy, the sales agent I met at the model house, pointed out that her visitors include a lot of older couples seeking to downsize from a larger home, but the ones who actually buy are young families. The current buzz is about young singles wanting in-town apartments, but when they outgrow the studio, the interest in smaller homes may persist.

That said, buyers are willing to give up space within their home for amenities outside of it. A study from real estate consultants RCLCO found that buyers will sacrifice a larger house to have a shorter commute. Maple Lawn puts residents within close reach of schools, shops and even jobs. You don't need a movie theatre in your house when there's stuff to do outside. And when your house faces a common green, you can make do with a smaller yard, which in turn makes the house more affordable.

Outdoor Room, Rhapsody In Blue
Backyard of a similar Miller & Smith house in Clarksburg.

Maple Lawn's not perfect. These are still large houses; my parents live in an 1,800-square-foot house that comfortably fits a family of four. The neighborhood's layout isn't totally ideal for walking and it displaced working farmland in an area with no transit where residents will have to drive to leave the community. And it's three miles from an existing town where 70 percent of the stores are empty.

However, it shows that buyers will sacrifice space to live in even a semi-walkable neighborhood with amenities close at hand. That's a good sign for places that are already walkable or are trying to become so.

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