The never-ending summer hum of lawn mowers, construction, ACs, pressure washers, and more

As soon as the weather started turning warmer, the summer drone began. Not crickets or the sounds of children playing baseball or swimming at the pool. Rather, it was the background noise of summer that seems unavoidable for months: in a suburban subdivision with numerous nearby subdivisions, there is always someone within a relatively short distance using a lawnmower, a weedwacker, a pressure washer, or construction equipment. The noise starts as early as 7:30 AM and stops around 8 PM.

The typical idyllic summer looks something like this with green lawns, sunshine, and peaceful looking homes:

Lawn

But, this image fails to include the background noise that is ever present. That noise is often less than idyllic, particularly if it is close and/or persistent.

I know the expectation of having quiet is one that is not possible in many settings, particularly in urban areas. Many American residents have little exposure to true quiet (and may even find it unnerving). But, the early suburban ideal of the mid 1800s was to help urban residents get back to nature (or an altered environment that fit certain standards of “nature). That quiet of nature – rustling trees, bird calls, insects, stillness – is simply not possible in most suburban settings today either. Some of this is due to location and the need to locate near major roads or other land uses (such as commercial or industrial properties). Some is due to the rise of air conditioning which made development possible in certain climates. Yet, it also comes from all the maintenance required for single-family homes and their environment. Home upkeep to typical standards, such as a good looking lawn, is aided by noisy tools.

I thought recently about having noise free days in suburban neighborhoods. Could everyone in a certain portion of a community schedule their outdoor maintenance for two or three days a week? This would make it more difficult to schedule things but the trade-off could be less noise for everyone. This could work with homeowner’s associations since they already contract for regular lawn service that typically happens on the same day each week. Imagine residents could have at least one weekday in which they knew the only noise outside would be from vehicles – would it be a better experience?

Production housing in the suburbs and what Americans want out of homes

An architect describes how production housing helps build the American suburbs:

Its scale is enormous. During the building boom before 2008, production housing—the name for builder-constructed residential developments—accounted for the vast majority of single-family homes. During that time, 1.8 million homes were started in a single month nationwide. Recent figures for January 2018, though down from prerecession highs, indicate 886,000 new starts. By some accounts, architects are responsible for designing no more than 2 percent of those homes. As the architect Duo Dickinson has observed, this means that the profession has largely ceded the best opportunity to be relevant and useful to ordinary people.

Not only does production housing dominate the market; consumers also like its products. The major appeal is affordability, with the housing industry producing a range of prices from modest to high-end. A family of four with a moderate middle-class income can put down $8,120, plus closing costs, to buy a home for $232,000 with three to four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage, and a piece of ground for a front and backyard. At the high end, buyers spending over $1 million—who could afford an architect if they wanted one—instead often choose big, builder-designed homes they see as bargains preferable to custom designs.

A second attraction is the quality of housing stock. People sometimes think of production homes as “builder-grade,” made carelessly and on the cheap. But American housing is better built now than ever before, a result of market competition, stricter building codes, and better materials. Basic construction is more solid, but the housing industry also is constantly upgrading the technology and sustainability of its products. As soon as the industry could see that producing energy-efficient homes had marketing advantages, green building started becoming increasingly widespread. These homes are not the ultimate in energy efficiency, but they are continuously improving. And because of the wide reach of production homes, those improvements impact many people.

A third appeal is that the housing industry answers consumers’ needs. Through its trade organizations, research institutes, and publications, it conducts constant research between buyer and seller. The feedback loop includes marketing, professional magazines, and trade shows. For instance, canvasing of consumers indicated that a living room adjacent to the front door, a holdover of the Victorian parlor, was far less important than having more space in a great room. Without reconfiguring the outline of the building—changing slab designs is costly—the front parlor was transformed into a smaller office or guest bedroom. This design makes sense, as the front door is typically not used for entry these days, but as a marker of domesticity. With marketing information at hand, builders can make immediate adjustments to their offerings. The expansion of walk-in closets, great spaces, and open kitchens correlate directly with consumers’ desires.

This list of positives sounds impressive: large-scale production of suburban housing means many homes can be built in many parts of the country at reasonable costs, at decent quality levels, and all while providing what buyers want. Relying on architects and others to design and build homes might push costs up, create more variability, and take more time. If efficiency and predictably for the homeowner is what Americans want, production building seems to be the way to go.

The rest of the article then goes on to discuss various critiques that could be leveled at suburban housing and development. Of course, efficiency and predictability have downsides both for individual homeowners and communities. And more broadly, we could ask about cultural values surrounding houses in the United States: what ends should they serve?

  1. Broadly accessible to the majority of Americans in settings that have broad appeal. This is what production building offers.
  2. Customized to the needs of individual owners and families rather than the limited number of models in #1.
  3. The design and size of homes should be subservient to community goals for land use and social life.
  4. Houses should provide significant return on investment.

Number three may just be the hardest sell as it places a house within a larger context and suggests it (and its owners) need to be part of what others are doing. Number two has the advantage of appealing to the individuality many Americans desire but this likely comes at some cost. Holding the goal of making suburban housing as available to as many people as possible (and you can make a good argument that this has been an American policy goal for roughly 100 years with ongoing socialized mortgages) leads to number one.

Number four is perhaps the most recent idea as it developed in recent decades with rising housing values amid financial uncertainties. This might fit best with number one: if Americans can get a good deal on a home, they can then expect more in return when they sell.

Americans can spend a majority of their time in a few spaces in their home and still want large homes

Americans may not need such large homes if a recent study is correct in showing where they spend their time inside their house:

A research team affiliated with UCLA studied American families and where they spend most of their time while inside their homes. The results were fascinating, but really not all that surprising. Here’s one representative example:

As you can see, most square footage is wasted as people tend to gather around the kitchen and the television, while avoiding the dining room and porch.

This is part of the reason newer homes do not need formal living rooms or dining rooms and instead often focus on open floor plans connecting kitchens with living areas.

However, while this study may have measured where people actually spend time in their homes, it does not necessarily mean that homeowners do not desire extra features. I can think of at four additional arguments homeowners might often make:

  1. They need significant amounts of space to store their stuff. Indeed, why get rid of stuff when you can just purchase a larger house?
  2. Even if the family or household members do end up in certain spaces more than others, this does not necessarily mean that they do not need separate spaces occasionally to have their own space away from each other.
  3. Certain spaces may be highly specialized and helpful, such as a dining room that accommodates large family meals or a hobby room where a homeowner can pursue their interests or a quiet and comfortable space.
  4. A larger home is a sign of success or tied to a particular lifestyle. For example, many homeowners may no longer use a porch but still prefer that look.

I’m also reminded of a recent survey that suggested the largest regret homeowners have is that they did not purchase a larger home.

See also a February 2017 post titled “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”

Trading Spaces avoided McMansions

Washington Post review of the new Trading Spaces emphasizes the smaller spaces the show worked with:

Though it was technically impossible to indict the cable channels — especially HGTV — for their role in the quick-mortgage fantasia, the connections were plain to see: the schedule was (and still is) littered with shows that spur house envy, encouraging viewers to live in a constant state of renovation, makeover and upgrade. Homeownership became the highest expression of citizenship, while decor became the chief signifier of class. “Trading Spaces,” which premiered in 2000, helped ignite that craze, making it safe to waste entire Saturday afternoons watching home-improvement shows. Yet it hardly deserves all (or any) of the blame.

The show returns Saturday (with a long reunion special preceding it), essentially unchanged and contagiously giddy, full of its usual surprises and reveals. Looking at the first of eight new episodes, one is reminded of “Trading Space’s” conceptual purity: It never goaded anyone into ditching their old house for an open-floor-plan, granite-countertop McMansion beyond their means. Its core principles were to work with what you have, on a restrained budget. It preached a DIY ethic, asking couples to swap houses and redo a room, aided (some would say strong-armed) by a crafty professional designer and carpenter.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. The scale of renovation on Trading Spaces is much more doable for the average American homeowner compared to the whole house makeovers on many other shows. How many people have the budget to do multiple rooms, particularly creating all new kitchens or master bathrooms? Or, who has the time to hand over their house for weeks as opposed to doing renovations over a weekend?
  2. The rooms on Trading Spaces tend to be much more varied than the typical home shows that often emphasize an expansive kitchen and open concept first floor. The HGTV shows encourage a homogenous style, moving from stainless steel appliances and granite countertops to shiplap, white cabinets, and open shelving.  American homes tend to be unique inside, particularly in certain rooms where people to have eclectic styles and uses.
  3. While the review above does not blame Trading Spaces for the larger shows to come, once you on television continue (1) glorifying the single-family home as the expression of individual tastes (a long-standing American tradition) plus (2) suggesting that people should be renovating their homes (part of the shift from living in homes to seeing homes as investments), is it a slippery slope to large-scale renovations in big houses?

On the whole, there is a lot that could be said from the move from Bob Villa to Trading Spaces to House Hunters and Property Brothers alongside shifts in American housing. Of course, it is hard to make causal arguments about how watching these shows directly changes behaviors.

Understanding homeownership in the United States through comparative data

Homeownership, like owning a car, is often viewed as a key feature of American life. Here is some comparative data on homeownership across countries:

HomeownershipRates

Several thoughts:

  1. The United States is nowhere near the top of this list. It is #42.
  2. There are a number of less wealthy countries that have significant higher rates of homeownership than the United States.
  3. And this is even with a federal government that subsidizes homeownership and a strong cultural ideology (examples here and here) promoting homeownership in the United States.
  4. This is a reminder that fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling. Even if it may be a goal of many Americans, not everyone has the resources or opportunities to reach that goal. And the differences in access to homeownership across groups can be stark.
  5. Comparing rates of homeownership may not tell the whole story of what kinds of homes are owned or the size of these homes. Famously, the United States has the largest new homes in the world. So perhaps Americans do not just want to own a home; they want a certain kind of home – a sizable single-family home in the suburbs –  that meets their standards.

Patterns across the ten metro areas with the most big homes

While the article I discussed yesterday did not provide a helpful definition of a McMansion, it did provide five trends regarding which metropolitan areas had the largest homes:

Supersize trend No. 1: Outdoorsy types need plenty of space

Supersize trend No. 2: Seeking space in the suburbs

Supersize trend No. 3: Southern cities are churning out jobs and big homes

Supersize trend No. 4: Big homes are all that’s left in tight Midwestern markets

Supersize trend No. 5: Tech hubs + deep pocked buyers = more McMansions available

And, like the McMansion definition, another important caveat:

And if it wasn’t for the fact that we limited our ranking to one housing market per state, Colorado and Utah would’ve had all five top metros.

And a third caveat: this is based on only homes that are on the market.

Even with these significant limitations, I wonder if an analysis could reveal some underlying patterns behind these noteworthy metropolitan areas:

  1. They have a growing population and thus a growing stock of larger, new homes, particularly in suburbs.
  2. They have relatively low housing prices paired with enough higher income jobs. (Seattle and Portland are the ones that stick out here but perhaps this is relative: those same buyers could find higher prices in the Bay Area, LA, Vancouver, etc.)
  3. These places have looser zoning restrictions on the whole that allows for more and/or quick construction. (I imagine there is some variation in these top 10 places. Portland and Bridgeport, for example, likely have some tight restrictions compared to an Indianopolis or Provo.)

This could be worth pursuing though the data needs to provide a more complete picture of the housing stock.

“[T]he federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”

The recent changes to the American tax code signal a shift toward homeownership:

It may be a few years before experts can accurately assess how the new tax reform law will affect each city’s individual housing market, but one thing is clear: For the first time in a century, the federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”…

“It’s very hard to come up with how this is helpful to housing,” said Jonathan Miller, President and CEO of Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm “It’s either neutral or negative; there’s no positive, at least that we’re aware of at the moment. All this does is make everything more expensive, at least in high-cost housing markets.”

As a result of the bill, Moody’s Analytics estimates that housing prices will drop about 4 percent nationwide relative to projections in which the law doesn’t exist, and those drops are more pronounced in high-cost housing markets.

A lower sale price is good news, though, right? Not necessarily. Average home prices will drop because of the lowered cap on the MID (from $1 million to $750,000), and a new cap on SALT deductions. These two tax deductions were baked into the price of homes-for-sale, so without them, prices will seem lower. But homeowners and buyers could end up with less mortgage interest to deduct, and a potentially astronomical property tax bill. Previously, there was no cap at all on property tax deductions.

Several things to keep in mind:

  1. The context – the specific address of the residence – matters a lot for this bill. And, local communities and states can respond uniquely to how the changes affect local homeowners.
  2. A lot of urbanists have criticized the subsidies from the federal government for single-family homes and suburbanization. Might these tax code changes help encourage more density in certain locales (and these high-price/high-tax locations are also ones where affordable housing is sorely needed)? Of course, since context matters here, some of those who prefer more sprawl could move to cheaper states where the disappearing SALT deductions matter less. But, isn’t this good for limiting Americans deducting mortgage interest?
  3. Could this help some communities move away from such reliance on property taxes? As one example, some have argued for decades that school funding needs to be more equitable and this is directly tied to property values and taxes: wealthier communities can draw in more tax revenue. (I would argue this is a red herring to as there are bigger issues at work.) Could these federal tax changes encourage more revenue sharing within counties, regions, and states?

Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is the first sentence of the article quoted above: it could take years to see how this all plays out.