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[The Hall Monitor] Bigger Is Not Always Better

Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues. This week Todd argues that we bought the ranch when we learned that smaller size does matter. …Jonathan Miller

McMansion, Starter Castle, Hummer House these are just a few of the nicknames that have been given to big new houses (by their critics) in existing neighborhoods of smaller houses. No one can argue that the “teardown” followed by the super-sized new house has not altered the suburban landscape in recent years. But the principle of highest and best use, which made the 1950’s Split Level an endangered species in many affluent communities, lives on. And the brand new Starter Castle next door is no more immune to the passage of time than was the Split Level it replaced.

In fact, if recent history is a harbinger of things to come then the economic lifespan of all our buildings, both residential and commercial, will be shorter in the future than it was in the past. Look at the ages of the buildings being demolished. With houses it’s nearly anything built after 1950. Many municipal buildings, sports stadiums, and the like have had, or will have, shorter lives than did Mozart (who died at 35 years of age).

Might Peak Oil [1] and $4 plus gasoline do for outsized houses in outlying suburbs what PETA [2] did for the fur industry? This is not to say that there won’t be big houses anymore inasmuch as there are still lots of people who like wearing fur coats and eating meat. Unfortunately, the newer McMansions are not usually located in the most desirable areas, within walking distance of shopping, train stations, etc. That’s where the “real” mansions are, and have been for 75 years. The newer big houses are mostly located in the outer ring suburbs, where they’re much more automobile dependent.

A story in the May 18, 2008 New York Times entitled Imagine No Possessions [3] addresses ‘voluntary simplicity’, a movement which is the antithesis of the culture of the McMansion. A less affirmative “movement” based on the more mundane and difficult economic reality heading our way might be called ‘involuntary simplicity’. We may not be able to afford to maintain the McMansions, once they are no longer new. Big houses cost more to acquire and more to maintain. They have higher taxes due to their higher values (at least for the time being). But bigger houses are not always worth more than smaller houses.

There is a neighborhood in the Village of Bronxville known as Lawrence Park [4]. Bronxville is a wealthy suburb just north of New York City and “The Hilltop”, as Lawrence Park is also known, was developed by William Van Duzer Lawrence in the late 1800’s as an artist’s colony. The houses are quite large, uniquely styled and sited on steep slopes along very narrow cobblestone roads. In recent years these houses have been renovated and they are today, some of the most valuable houses in Bronxville. But for decades following WWII this was a neighborhood in physical decline, based on historical assessment records. A longtime Hilltop resident once described it to me as a “slum” when she built her house there in the 1950’s.

If you walk through that neighborhood now it seems hard to believe but you have to consider how the world was looking in the 1950’s. As we all know, the 1950’s was a boom period for suburban construction and if you were buying a house you had the choice of a brand spanking new Ranch or Split Level with all the latest amenities, or one of these “old fashioned”, drafty dowagers then approaching 60 years old. Modern was “In” [5] and late 19th century was definitely “Out” [6]. The assessment records from that era reflect the fact that the newer, albeit smaller houses had higher values than the older ones.

There may come a time in the not so distant future when the adjustments appraisers make for differences in living area reverse themselves and the larger house is adjusted downward. It won’t be the first time that smaller houses will have been in greater demand, and more valuable, than larger ones.