Baby Boomers want to downsize from McMansions but still want the amenities

Even if more people are interested in smaller houses, will they be willing to forgo the amenities of larger houses? This article suggests the Baby Boomers going to Florida want to go smaller but still want features:

The baby boomers who invented the “McMansion” now say they want to scale down, while still having everything just so. For boomers beginning to trickle into Florida, this means medium-size, maintenance-free retirement homes that still feel spacious, especially when it comes to storing all their stuff.

Builders who study what this generation wants have come up with innovations like “snore rooms” to preserve bedtime peace and “technology centers” to keep them connected. Behind a yen for such marketing frills is a solid demand for costly amenities: spas, fitness centers and dedicated golf cart paths to nearby shopping…

This generation, famous for saying one thing and doing another, promises to keep it up as its members age. Boomers say they intend to downsize, but appear to change their minds once they see what their dollars will buy in a post-recession Florida…

Inside, the standard villa layout has been refined to boost the coolness factor boomers crave. Generous windows, some of them bays and bump-outs, flood the rooms with natural light. Tiny foyers feature the elegant architectural detail of a stately manor, and lead immediately into wide, off-center angles of open-planned space. Pocket doors allow one- or two-bedroom guest suites to close off from the rest of the living area, so grandchildren can nap or play.

Custom options include a cocktail pool, or “spool” — bigger than a spa, smaller than a pool — and a shared office with his-and-her workspaces for boomer couples telecommuting from home.

Several factors are at play here:

1. Housing is relatively cheap in Florida, particularly if retirees are coming from New York, Washington, Boston, and to a lesser extent, Chicago. Perhaps these retirees can’t resist getting the “best deal” when they realize they have the money to buy a little more?

2. What people expect in retirement. It sounds like these retirees expect a certain standard of living when they move to Florida. If they had fewer choices or less money, what would they ask for? Overall, these retirees have the money and the wherewithal to pick up and leave for Florida.

3. This is big business. Companies like Dell Webb need retirees to buy their homes so they are going to offer what people want.

In these cases, it sounds like buying less (particularly in square footage) doesn’t necessarily mean buying less.

An argument for historic districts: repel McMansions!

A common argument for historic districts is that they limit the destruction of older homes and the construction of McMansions. Here is an example of this argument in Fort Lauderdale:

However, if communities wait around for that history to age, new development might wipe it out before it has a chance to be saved.

That fear has residents of Fort Lauderdale’s Colee Hammock neighborhood thinking about seeking historic district designation for their community.

“We’re constantly inundated with development issues, people wanting to come in and build too much, too high, too big,” said Jackie Scott, president of Colee Hammock’s neighborhood association. “It gets to a point where you’re sick and tired of always having to come out and fight for your neighborhood. It’s not an enjoyable way to live.”…

“We have some beautiful homes that have been built and are new construction. They fit perfectly with the neighborhood,” Scott said. [A historic district] prevents people that want to come into an area like this to start ripping things down and creating McMansions.”

While McMansions are often tied to sprawl and new subdivisions, teardowns are also a common scene for debates over the merits of McMansions. In this particular example, a McMansion is contrasted with new homes that “fit perfectly with the neighborhood.” Many American communities have created some guidelines so that teardowns can’t be anything a homeowner might desire but there is a spectrum between more permissive and less permissive communities. The advantage of declaring a historic district is that the community has more control over what can be demolished and built within the district. At the same time, some consider historic districts to be quite restrictive.

I would be interested to hear what resources those pushing for the historic district have utilized from outside groups. For example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation even has a page titled “Teardowns and McMansions.” Here is the lead paragraph:

Across the nation a teardown epidemic is wiping out historic neighborhoods one house at a time. As older homes are demolished and replaced with dramatically larger, out-of-scale new structures, the historic character of the existing neighborhood is changed forever. Neighborhood livability is diminished as trees are removed, backyards are eliminated, and sunlight is blocked by towering new structures built up to the property lines. Community economic and social diversity is reduced as new mansions replace affordable homes. House by house, neighborhoods are losing a part of their historic fabric and much of their character.

With such resources available, I wonder if local groups are now more effective in adopting historic districts.

Quiet plans for private illegal immigrant prison anger Florida town

Here is an interesting story about quiet plans to build a privately-run prison for illegal immigrants in a wealthy Florida town that helps illustrate the issues of having private prisons, NIMBY concerns, and immigration:

Only the leaders of Southwest Ranches kept their plans quiet from residents for almost a decade, and the project has now ballooned into what would be among the federal government’s largest immigrant detention centers. The town would have to pay $150,000 each year to keep the prison, but officials say the town would turn a profit by getting 4 percent of what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays the company operating the prison to hold inmates there.

Many residents finally caught wind of the idea this year, when the immigration agency announced a tentative deal, and they’re angry. They’ve held protests at public meetings, contemplated whether to recall the mayor before his March election and whether to amend the town charter to make it easier to fire the city attorney pushing the deal.

The objection over the prison has created an odd set of allies among the town’s affluent residents, many of whom are wary of illegal immigrants, and longtime activists who fight for immigrants, legal or not…

But according to Mayor Jeff Nelson and others involved at the time, the plan for some kind of prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was always integral to Southwest Ranches’ ability to survive.

The town, a self-described “rural lifestyle community” located southwest of Fort Lauderdale, is for the equestrian set. There are several very interesting cross-currents in this story:

1. Lots of towns need revenue. Not only will Southwest Ranches earn money per inmate but there will be jobs at the prison.

2. Immigration is a hot-button issue. Shouldn’t people in town opposed to illegal immigration welcome such facilities?

3. But, of course, those worried about illegal immigration probably don’t want the prison right next to them. Classic NIMBY situation – build it somewhere else.

4. Local officials have done this quietly and it appears residents may not be able to do much at this point about halting the process.

The conclusion of this story makes it sound like the NIMBY concerns win out – as one resident says, “In the opposition to the prison, both sides of the immigration debate are represented.” I can’t say I’m surprised – what wealthy community would want a prison in town? If the private company doesn’t end up building in this town, how difficult will it be for them to find another town who needs the revenue? And if this community does indeed need revenue, would these same residents be willing to give up services or pay higher taxes?

Quick Review: Universal’s Islands of Adventure & The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We recently were in Florida and spent a day at Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure. While this is more of a theme park than the regular Universal, it also includes the 1 year old Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here are some thoughts on this park with pictures:

1. I’ll start with Harry Potter. This area was a lot of fun: from the ride (more of a Universal type ride than a roller coaster) to Hogsmeade to seeing Hogwarts from a distance, it was exciting. By far the best overall area of the park. In addition to the main ride (which was fun but we only did it once), there are two dueling roller coasters, the Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball, that were the second and third best rides in the park (and I went on each of these twice).

We spent a good amount of time in Hogsmeade. The scene of a small village in the snow looked good even on a 90 degree day and Hogwarts looks imposing off in the distance. While Olivander’s wand shop was overrated (and the longest wait of the day at 45 minutes), Zonko’s, Honeyduke’s, and The Three Broomsticks were worthwhile. The butterbeer was tasty.

This was the most crowded part of the park and we went there at least four separate times to try to avoid some of the crowds.

2. The best roller coaster in the park is The Incredible Hulk. While it is not the tallest or fastest coaster in Florida, it has some good features: you are shot out of the tunnel, the first turn/corkscrew is great, and it has an interesting part where it goes through some mist and under a bridge. The waits weren’t that long and I rode three times.

3. The park has three water rides which we rode all in a row. The Jurassic Park ride was entertaining (an extended big boat ride with the big drop at the end). The best was Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls which was whimsical, wet, and had a couple of small gotcha drops.

4. Other parts of the park I liked:

-Perhaps other parks have this now but all of the rides had lockers that were free and locked/unlocked by your fingerprint. We didn’t have to pay anything for this all day, the lockers were conveniently located near every ride, and we didn’t have to worry about a key.

-The Dr. Seuss area was fun to walk through but the rides are for kids. Humorously, we saw a brochure in the Orlando area that claimed one of the tram rides from this area was actually in Disney World.

-Spiderman was okay – a typical Universal ride with lots of noise, lights, a 3-D screen. Doctor Doom’s Fearfall could have been taller but at least the line was short.

-We saw three shows: the BMX/skateboarding/motorcycle stunt show was fun while Poseidon’s Fury and the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad were lame.

-The food wasn’t bad. We ate at The Three Broomsticks for lunch and Mythos for dinner. Mythos claimed to be at the top of theme park food and I can’t say that I disagree.

5. Some things I would change:

-There are a few areas that need to be spiced up: Jurassic Park and The Lost Continent. Perhaps this has changed recently with more resources and space going to Harry Potter but these areas were noticeably lacking.

-The park needs one or two good rides to be fantastic. Another roller coaster would be fantastic. We had ridden all three roller coasters (and The Hippogriff kiddie coaster doesn’t count) and all three water rides within four hours of being in the park.

6. A note: we stayed in a Universal hotel the night before and it seemed to pay off. Though the hotel was pricey, we were able to get into the park an hour early (and therefore had no line for the Harry Potter ride) and also had an Express Pass so we could bypass some of the lines. The longest wait we had for a ride all day was probably twenty-five minutes and this was to be in the front row of The Incredible Hulk.

On the whole, we enjoyed the day. All amusement parks these days are expensive but I found this to be more interesting than Disney World, Epcot, or the regular Universal Park. Compared to the other nearby options, this park has exciting rides and doesn’t have to rely on characters, tradition, and tricks. With a little bit more, this park could be fantastic and I would then enjoy returning.

Here is the official website and the Wikipedia overview.

(Side note: the Harry Potter souvenirs were flying off the shelves including wands and school robes. With this success, how come some park hasn’t shelled out big bucks for a Lord of the Rings theme?)

Florida leads country with 18% home vacancy rate

While foreclosures and vacancies are a problem throughout much of the United States, some states have been hit harder than others. New data from the Census Bureau shows Florida has the highest home vacancy rate in the country:

On Thursday, the Census Bureau revealed that 18% — or 1.6 million — of the Sunshine State’s homes are sitting vacant. That’s a rise of more than 63% over the past 10 years…

The vacancy problem is more dire in Florida than in any other bubble market: In California, only 8% of units were vacant, while Nevada, the state with the nation’s highest foreclosure rate, had about 14% sitting empty. Arizona had a vacancy rate of about 16%.

In Florida, the worst-hit county is Collier — home of Naples — with a whopping 32% of homes empty. In Sarasota County, 23% of the housing stock sits vacant, while Lee County (Cape Coral) has a 30% vacancy rate. And Miami-Dade County has a vacancy rate of about 12%.

The article goes on to say that the problem of vacancies has grown partly due to a slow-down in population growth in the state in the late 2000s. Additionally, the large number of vacancies has helped lower housing values: “The median price for homes sold in January was just $122,000, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. That was down 7% from 12 months earlier and less than half the price at the peak of the market.”

It would be interesting to see new or recent studies that look at how these vacancies impact community and neighborhood life. Beyond the economic impact, how does having a large percentage of empty houses effect interactions that people have with each other?

Also, how exactly are vacancy and foreclosure statistics related? Nevada has the highest level of foreclosures but a lower rate of vacancies – is this because more people have actually gone through the foreclosure process?

(If you want some insights into how the Census Bureau calculates different vacancy rates, see here. This would have been helpful information for an earlier discussion about seemingly different vacancy statistics.)

Gated communities on HGTV

As someone who studies suburbs and housing, I admit enjoying watching people choose homes on HGTV on shows like House Hunters. I’ve noticed that one factor that occasionally influences the choice of homes is whether it is located in a gated community. A few thoughts about this topic, gated communities, which has attracted more attention from sociologists and planner in the last two decades:

1. On these shows, the gated communities often pop up in the South or West, particularly in Florida or California.

2. We rarely see any evidence of the gated community like the entryway to the neighborhood (a fake guardhouse or a real guardhouse?)  or a fence around the entire neighborhood. We are simply told that the suburban home is in a gated community.

3.  At least when making their choices on screen, the people rarely talk much about the fact that a home is in a gated community. This is probably due to the fact that the show is supposed to be about the home and not the neighborhood. (So how about a new show where it is less about the individual housing unit and more about selecting a neighborhood?)

4. The homes in the gated communities vs. those that are not in a gated community look very similar. Ultimately, it is really rare that anyone on this show is selecting a home that is in a “unsafe neighborhood.” As sociologists have suggested, living in a gated community is often a decision made regarding some amorphous outside threat. They are devices that portray a certain image while also acting as reassurance for residents. As some have shown, like Setha Low in Behind the Gates, some suburban residents feel very afraid even when they live in exclusive, upscale neighborhoods. The gates in many neighborhoods don’t really keep people out but they help the residents feel better.

How winning on minor technicalities can lead to a 25 year foreclosure battle

As lenders have recently had to slow down the foreclosure process because of running into trouble for not properly following procedures, the Wall Street Journal reports on another cautionary tale: one woman in Florida has stretched out her foreclosure for 25 years, not making a payment since 1985. According to the story, this has happened because the woman has been able to make successful arguments in the courts:

She has managed to stave off the banks partly because several courts have recognized that some of her legal arguments have some merit—however minor. Two foreclosure actions against her, for example, were thrown out because her lender sat on its hands too long after filing a case and lost its window to foreclose.

Ms. Campbell, who is handling her case these days without a lawyer, has learned how to work the ropes of the legal system so well that she has met every attempt by a lender to repossess her home with multiple appeals and counteractions, burying the plaintiffs facing her under piles of paperwork.

She offers no apologies for not paying her mortgage for 25 years, saying that when a foreclosure is in dispute, borrowers are entitled to stop making payments until the courts resolve the matter.

“This is every lender’s nightmare,” says Robert Summers, a Stuart, Fla., real-estate lawyer who represents Commercial Services of Perry, an Iowa-based buyer of distressed debt that currently owns Ms. Campbell’s mortgage and has been trying to foreclose. “Someone defending a foreclosure action can raise defenses that are baseless, but are obstacles for the foreclosing lender,” he says, calling the system “an unfair burden” for lenders.

I don’t know if the system is “unfair” for lenders but it is remarkable that the woman is openly guilty about not making a payment and yet is still able to win in court. Could lenders be this bad on following procedures? Or is the law really this in favor of people who haven’t made mortgage payments?