Building amenity-filled suburban apartments to encourage community

Some suburbanites may not just expect more amenities in apartments; the larger push may be toward creating community rather than just rental units.

Tony Rossi, president of M&R Development, the company behind the Wilmette and Itasca properties, agrees that the “explosion of amenities” seen downtown is starting to take hold in the suburbs as well. He said rent in the suburbs is usually two-thirds of rent in the city, but newer buildings with extra features will have a higher price tag. Martin pays about $1,925 a month for her one-bedroom and underground parking…

Greenberg developed the project with more than 20 years of hospitality experience and considers design a key factor in changing the vibe and perception of suburban rental living. For example, adding color and art to corridors in apartment buildings, as hotels do, makes all the difference, he said.

And while some suburban developers merge residential and retail in the same physical structure — think storefronts at street level and housing on top — Greenberg said 444 Social is unique because the apartment building is new and located near (but not connected to) existing commercial facilities, like Regal Cinemas next door. It also has natural elements, like forests and a lake, nearby.

“This goes to part of the DNA of this place,” Greenberg said. “If you want to be happy, if you want to live a healthy life, if you want to stay active, you got to be social. … That is what is missing in apartments where it’s downtown or in the suburbs where you just go to a place and hole up. Here we’re actually creating a community, so it’s pushing that experience.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Building apartments in certain ways does not guarantee that community will develop. Certain features of units, buildings, and the grounds could help encourage social interaction but it does not necessarily mean that it will happen.
  2. Apartments with more amenities and higher prices are likely to attract certain kinds of residents. Might it be easier or harder to create community among groups with more resources?
  3. I wonder how many residents in such apartments are interested in developing more community as opposed to enjoying a higher level of luxury or feeling that such apartments fit their cultural tastes (with connections to their social class).
  4. Are developers interested more in profits they can obtain through more amenities and higher rents or creating community?

More broadly, see an earlier post on “surban” places.

Escaping to a tiny house/anti-McMansion for a getaway

The business Getaway offers tiny houses as an escape from the typical urban area, smartphone dominated life:

The “tiny houses,” or cabins, measure 8 by 20 feet, or about the size of a living room. They cost about $30,000 each to build and are shuttled on truck beds from a factory in Massachusetts to their destination.

McMansions they ain’t. In fact, these two are the anti-McMansion crowd, too.

They cluster the tiny houses in groups of 20 or so on leased woodland, just outside major cities. Each outpost has a long-term lease on private land. Cabins are spaced 200 feet from one another, allowing sufficient privacy. And you can drive right up to the door…

They share a love for community, neighborliness and a skepticism toward social media. They also share “old-fashioned values” that were affirmed with a course they took from Robert Putnam, who authored “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

While this business can be pitched as offering a return to nature and in-person experiences, I wonder who it is selling to. Two quick thoughts:

  1. This really is another lifestyle option for people to pursue. Work hard for weeks on end, get buried in your smartphone, and then detox for up to two weeks in a tiny house in the woods. Perhaps everything is a commodity these days but this is just another hotel option.
  2. This could reinforce the idea that tiny houses are unusual (there are still just a small number of them) and primarily for people with money (especially when they have nicer features or are priced nightly like a decent hotel). How many Americans could access this? How many would want to?

This is very different than tiny houses for affordable housing. This is tiny houses for profit (and perhaps some good time away from “normal” life).

Back to the SUV and McMansion comparisons

With a stronger economy, it may be time now again to link McMansions and SUVs. Here is one review of “gargantuan SUVs” or “extra-large luxury SUVs”:

But when you drive one like the new 2018 Lincoln Navigator (starting at $73,250), you start to understand why these whales of the highway are a rare yet growing subgenome of the SUV originally created in the heady days of the late ’90s. (Sales were up 5 percent in 2017.) They have become less McMansion, less family trucksters gussied up in questionable leather and wood veneers, and more bespoke luxury condo—the mobile living room for sophisticates with a growing brood that they always tried to be.

Space is a luxury, sure. But the stretch-your-legs-out room and cushy rear-seat experience that would normally require a first-class Emirates ticket? That’s a rare kind of decadence on the road that the Navigator handles with surprising grace. The interior is a treat for grown-ups (copious soundproofing, massage seats) and their kids (it can take up to ten WiFi connections).

Three quick thoughts:

  1. There is still an emphasis on space in these comparisons. SUVs and McMansions both provide significant amounts of room compared to the typical vehicle or home.
  2. Both are luxury goods that are a step up from the normal experience. Yet, the line that these newer SUVs are less McMansion and more luxury condo suggests their opulence is more acceptable. Indeed, it is okay to spend a lot of money for a flashy urban condo while the suburban McMansion is still looked down upon.
  3. Are we sure that the SUV and McMansion are the mass consumer goods that mark this era (roughly late 1990s to now) of American life? To critics, they represent wasted resources as well as American conspicuous consumption. The cell phone becomes popular over this time period but not until the smartphone of the late 2000s does it reach its peak.

I will keep looking for the comparisons of SUVs and McMansions. At the least, they suggest the economy is back to the point where more Americans are making or considering these purchases.

Tiny houses with the luxury touches

Tiny houses could be used to address affordable housing or provide housing for the homeless – or they could be luxurious and appeal to the middle and upper classes:

The reality television series “Tiny Luxury” aims to bridge that gap, enticing viewers with high-end, highway-ready homes built on trailer chassis, all under 400 square feet…

Do new homeowners experience any angst about the size of the homes?

Tyson: They’ve anticipated what it’s going to be like. For people who can work remotely, it’s a traveler’s delight. They see it as having four times the freedom for a fourth of the price…

When you design for just a few hundred square feet, your homes can splurge on quality.

Tyson: We do a lot of granite and quartz countertops, or custom tops like slate, stone and butcher block. We can do really premium backsplashes and tile work in showers. We’re able to upgrade all the lighting and use better hardware.

The tiny house movement is not very big and I suspect the largest market involves people with means who either want to (1) downsize and live a different kind of life or (2) be more mobile and have a nicer house than an RV. If this is the case, then the tiny house becomes another luxury good that is not really within the reach of many Americans.

I know this might go against the audience of networks like DIY or HGTV that likely skew toward better off viewers but it would be interesting to see someone providing tiny houses to those who truly need one. It does not have to happen on a mass scale – imagine twenty episodes where one tiny house is built on each show – but it could generate a lot of positive sentiment toward tiny houses. Imagine “Extreme Home Makeover” with tiny houses.

Does talking about the McMansions of yachts make sense?

Purchase a luxury yacht – a “floating McMansion” – or you can choose one below that level yet still expensive:

The four-bedroom, three-bathroom luxury cruiser offers three floors of light-flooded living space, sundecks galore, two full kitchens and no shortage of closet space. The bedrooms are surprisingly spacious — more-so than most New York City apartments — and a gyro built into the hull keeps the boat so level at sea it hardly feels like a boat at all, even when it tops out at 25 miles per hour, Curry said.

“They are like a house and that’s what they are for these people — vacation homes,” said Chris Broadbent, a salesman for Grande Yachts. “You can buy a vacation home in Montauk for $1.6 million or more and you’re stuck there — which there are worse places to be stuck — but you can pay almost the same price for one of these and go anywhere.”

While the Norwalk Boat Show offers impressive examples of a luxury life at sea, not every boat needs to feel like a floating McMansion and run upwards of $2 million to be realistically livable for an extended period of time.

Mike Bassett, co-owner of Louis Marine in Westbrook, said the essentials for comfortable on-board living include heat and air conditioning, hot water and a microwave. Typically these boats are 35 to 40 feet, and can run anywhere from $130,000 to nearly $500,000 depending on the level of luxury, detailing and features that are added. The larger the boat, the more maintenance required, so really, it’s all about the lifestyle one is willing to live.

I am always intrigued to see what other consumer or luxury goods are compared to McMansions. Using the term implies more than just an expensive item: it is a mass-produced, gaudy or garish item of questionable quality intended to flash the status of their owner. Does a luxury yacht fit this bill? I would say no based on three factors:

  1. The price of the yachts said to be “floating McMansion[s]” costs more than the average American McMansion. (The average price would include a rough estimate based on housing markets across the United States.) This puts what is truly a more unusual consumer good already (how many Americans can purchase boats after their other expenses) out of reach of many people.
  2. These expensive boats are not mass-produced on the same scale as McMansions. There are plenty of boats in the United States – nearly 12 million registered boats according to Statista – but how many of them are these more expensive boats?
  3. The architecture or design of an expensive boat receives less attention than houses. Are new expensive yachts garish or poorly designed compared to older big yachts? It is hard to know what people’s perceptions are of this if the conversation is not as public or the conversation does not exist.

I’m open to hearing arguments for why this comparison – expensive boats are like McMansions – makes sense.

Why might Americans be interested in the most expensive homes?

Here is one segment of the housing market that is again doing well:

Sale prices of luxury homes in the second quarter of this year were up 7.5 percent from a year ago, the first time luxury gains have outpaced the rest of the market since 2014, according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage which defines luxury as the top 5 percent of the most expensive homes sold in each city in each quarter.

While some point to the recent runup in the stock market, the real reason for the luxury recovery may be a shift in the mind of sellers. They were asking too much, and now that they’re asking less, there is more action in the market, in turn boosting prices again…

Luxury home sales have been rising steadily, causing the supply of those homes for sale to drop. Sales of homes priced above $1 million jumped 19 percent in June compared with a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors. That was a much larger sales gain than in any of the lower price points.

The sales surge has caused a decline in the supply of luxury homes. Listings at or above $1 million fell 9.4 percent compared with the same period last year, according to Redfin. Those priced at or above $5 million were down about the same. This after five consecutive quarters of double-digit inventory growth.

This change in the luxury market is unlikely to help many Americans though a number of these expensive properties get a lot of media attention. Come to think of it, what exactly is the purpose of media outlets regularly showing expensive homes? Here are a few options:

  1. This could be the curiosity of the masses regarding the practices of the wealthy. How does the other half (or top 10%) live?
  2. Or, is it intended as a critique of the well-resourced by holding up their lavishness up for public display? Look at those wealthy people with their ostentatious homes.
  3. Alternatively, might it encourage class conflict and social change since these expensive homes are out of reach of most Americans? For the many Americans who struggle to find decent housing, highlighting the luxury of the wealthy might serve as a reminder of the distance between groups.
  4. At the least, such regular stories might display the important place real estate and homeownership play in American wealth. It is one thing to own financial instruments but another to purchase more tangible items like property and housing.

This all might be different if the housing market as a whole was booming, particularly if the lower end of the market with smaller homes or starter houses was growing. I suppose this could be a research question: during periods of rising economic boats for all (such as the several decades after World War II), are there fewer media stories on homes and properties of the wealthy compared to homes for the average person?

Toll Brothers still claiming they are not building McMansions

Few people want to claim the McMansion as their own. In particular, one of the noted national builders of large homes continues to say they do not build McMansions:

“We’re not seeing any reduction in the size of homes people want,” Tim Gehman, Toll Brothers’ director of design, told Business Insider. “The sizes of homes are back to pre-downturn dimensions, and sales are booming.”…

Toll Brothers is quick to dismiss the idea that Henley homes — or any of its other luxury home models, for that matter — are McMansions.

“It has to do with proportions. Is it just the same house with a lot more space in it, or is it more smartly designed with more rooms?” Gehman said. “We pride ourselves on the quality of the design, the livability, and the attractiveness of a home. We don’t want to be so devoid of what has been historical in any particular region just to get square footage. It’s important that it lives in its environment well.”

He added: “No one likes McMansions, ever, but a well-appointed luxury home, on the other hand, is still very popular. Our buyers are savvy buyers. As much as they have different tastes, they also know that they’re buying a commodity, and they’re investing in it. Until the market in general changes its point of view on what is valuable, most are not likely to spend on what they think won’t return value.”

Two quick thoughts:

  1. I get that they don’t want to associate themselves with McMansions. But, the explanation above seems forced. What exactly is the difference between a McMansion and “a well-appointed luxury home”? To the outside observer, not much. To the careful brand protector, everything.
  2. Toll Brothers has received a lot of press in recent decades regarding McMansions. Are they the worst offenders or just the biggest builder out there? Who else is building these homes – a bunch of regional builders? I have seen little about how all those McMansions were constructed without Toll Brothers invoked.