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.

Arms race among new luxury apartments includes live-in musicians

If you have the resources, you have some options in shopping for a nice new apartment including a building musician:

Amenities for high rise buildings are generally culled from a well-honed list of known popular offerings—a lounge, gym, a pool, an outdoor deck, and grilling stations wouldn’t really lead anyone to blink an eyelash. Being LEED certified is often expected.

At the 34-story, 298-unit Exhibit on Superior, amenities for the studio, convertible, and 1 to 3-bedroom units include those, as well as keyless entry with smartphone integration, stainless steel appliances, in-unit washer and dryer and more. Quite nice—but the downtown luxury apartment market glut has led to an arms race to attract new residents and keep rents from being slashed.

And even though the price point is comparably lower (and the floor plans are comparably smaller) than other neighborhood offerings to attract a younger demographic, developer Magellan Development Group and MAC Management wanted to bring some artistry and magic to their building (and to their other properties, if this catches on). Here’s the idea.

A contest is open for the best acoustic guitarist and vocalist to live and play for one year at Exhibit on Superior. The winning musician gets free rent at an unfurnished studio for a year, the title of Musician in Residence, and the chance to hone their skills while playing against any number of cool nooks and spaces in the bKL Architecture-designed building. The residents get in-house live entertainment and bragging rights to live in a building with the first so-called Exhibit A-Lister.

My first thought was that sounds like the arms race among colleges to provide amenities for prospective students ranging from excellent food, state of the art gyms, and private and luxurious dorms. Then it hit me: these luxury apartment buildings may be going after that same demographic: college graduates who want the excitement of the city. If we could narrow it even more, perhaps they are employed in a creative industry or field.

After thinking this through a bit, it is clever to pair residential real estate with music. We might expect something like this in commercial spaces or privately-owned property that is trying to operate like public space (perhaps a park like area outside a major office building). But, this continues the trend of some of the other “weapons” in this residential arms race: providing building amenities that encourage sociability while simultaneously offering well-appointed private units. Let’s hope all the residents like the acoustic guitar scene…