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[The Hall Monitor] Thinking Not So Big

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 (and pretentious, arrogant, know-it-all seemed a little harsh). He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues. Today Todd makes a big point on a small issue on resistance to large new homes by the neighbors, or was that a small point on a big issue? …Jonathan Miller


Source: NYT

An article in the Home & Garden [1] section of the New York Times the other day (and this Sunday section story too [2] -ed), got me searching my bookshelves for Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House [3], written in 1998. Maybe it was just a matter of timing, since 1998 marked the start of a seven year boom in real estate, but from my vantage point very few developers or their customers (in Westchester at least) read that book (or agreed with its premise if they did read it) when it first came out. Now that the boom has ended, however, and there’s time to reflect on what’s been built in the last few years, how will the market judge, come re-sale time, the most recent crop of new houses and what trends can we expect to see in the next wave of new construction?

If recent growth cycles ushered in the “Era of the McMansion”, might the next one bring us houses that are – dare I say it – smaller? In “The Not So Big House”, Sarah Susanka explains, “Maybe it was the 1980’s that created what I call the ‘starter castle’ complex the notion that houses should be designed to impress rather than nurture. More rooms, bigger spaces, and vaulted ceilings do not necessarily give us what we need in a home.”

Since there is almost no vacant, developable land in most of Westchester, new construction usually takes place on a small scale, a new cul-de-sac with four houses as opposed to a 500 lot subdivision. In many built-up areas new construction happens literally one house at a time, in the form of additions/alterations to, or teardowns of, existing houses, as they sell.

No one can reasonably argue that the houses built to meet the needs of people in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s or 50’s meet the needs of those buying houses today. Some kind of alteration to these houses, if not outright demolition, is necessary. We all recognize the world we live in today is different from that of our grandparents.

Yet the reaction to big, new houses built in recent years, particularly in neighborhoods of smaller houses, has been vocal and generally in opposition. Many communities have tightened their zoning ordinances in an effort to limit the size of new houses. The flip side of the “too big” argument comes from builders who say they are just building in response to what their customers are demanding, and this is not an unreasonable position.

But now that the market is (taking a breather?), perhaps both sides of the “how big is too big” question can sit back, cool their jets, and, with a nod to the recently departed Milton Friedman, let the market decide.

Will the next generation of houses be a rejection of the McMansion in favor of something smaller and smarter, as Susanka advocates? The building supply store Lowes is now offering kits for Katrina cottages [4]. Will “small” be the new “big”?

Update: Speaking of a small world, saw this article on MSN/Real estate today For many homeowners, less is so much more [5].