Interest rates have plummeted to their lowest level in 20 years, and as of this writing, some experts believe the drop is not over. This is long-awaited and wonderful news for prospective buyers of single-family homes, who not long ago were less worried about floor plans and fireplaces than about the dwindling prospects of ever purchasing a home, or selling an existing home and moving up.
While today's lower interest rates clearly mean a difference in monthly costs for buyers, and tremendous savings over the life of the loan, the bottom line still counts. In real estate as in most every industry in this country these days, cautious consumers are demanding more for their money. The recession and accompanying lean years have forced builders and community planners to be acutely sensitive to what will or will not appeal to prospective buyers in every price range. And both builders and buyers are responding.
THE CAMBRIDGE AT CRISFIELD CROSSING
Cliff Perlow, vice president of QAR Corp., is a happy man. The developer of Crisfield Crossing just off Route 24 in Harford County is not merely building town houses geared to first-time buyers, but he feels his company is providing a service because the homes they offer are not bare bones.
"The price includes features you don't find in homes at twice the cost," he says. He is referring to the large master bathroom, called a "super-bath," which comes complete with a soaking tub and separate shower. A choice of two or three bedrooms comes with a generously sized kitchen and eating area, a living/dining combination and a full basement. To help with future fuel bills, exterior walls have 2 extra inches of insulation.
How can QAR offer such amenities for less than $80,000, a price more common in the distant past than 1992? "My father-in-law bought the land in 1979 before prices increased in Harford County," says Mr. Perlow. "As builders and developers, we developed the site ourselves, giving us the price advantage of not having to buy high-priced developed lots."
Because of the high degree of finish applied to these homes, most buyers do not purchase options. However, options such as fireplaces or rear decks (at $1,900 for either) are available.
A homeowners' association maintains lawns and public areas for what eventually will be 157 units, at $24 per month, and membership to the private community center complete with swimming pool is available for $150 yearly.
THE ENTERPRISE AT OWINGS MEADOWS
Owings Meadows is a traditional community, a neighborhood of 110 single-family detached new homes. It is viewed by its Ryland Homes developers as the ideal move-up community. Each home boasts a lot size of approximately 1/4 acre, in a bucolic setting that belies its location, at the hub of one of the fastest-growing sections of greater Baltimore, Owings Mills. Finding a new-home bargain in a desirable market is rarely easy. But the Enterprise is exactly that rare find. A traditional Colonial home with four bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths, the Enterprise features a full basement for future expansion, and gracious livability for under $180,000.
A practical size at 2,272 square feet, the Enterprise offers a one-car garage as standard, and is the most modest of several different models available in this development. Builders' costs were kept down, then passed to prospective buyers, by a design that concentrates on actual living space rather than circulation space. This means that hallways are kept to a minimum, rooms are generously sized, and bells and whistles such as a two-story foyer simply are not part of the plan.
Glamour options, such as a fancy master bathroom, garage expansion, brick front or fireplace, are available at a modest additional cost. For example, an upgrade to the "garden" master bath complete with oval tub and separate shower stall is approximately $4,000, and the garage expansion to a two-car garage is $3,700. Even when every available option is selected, the home price remains under $200,000.
According to John Flaherty, vice president and Baltimore division manager of Ryland Homes, "Our whole basic philosophy is value, it's not to force the buyer to upgrade. We provide the opportunity to purchase a basic house with available options in lieu of fancy standard features, which allows some people to live in a certain neighborhood that they otherwise could not afford."
Another cost-cutting measure is the panelized construction of Ryland Homes. Portions of the framing are preconstructed in a plant facility and shipped to the building site, where builders put the framing together and under roof quickly to save time and money. The homes are then finished conventionally.
THE BLAIR AT COBBLESTONE
The conservative Baltimore real estate market was turned on its ear last May when Talles Homes held its grand opening for Cobblestone, a development of 118 homes in southern Owings Mills. The shock was in Talles Homes' radical approach to land use. The site originally was zoned for 80 single-family homes on nearly half-acre lots in an area where inflated land prices would have made conventional single-family development impractical. Therefore Talles Homes elected to adopt the use of the Z-lot, an approach more familiar in Southern California and Florida.
The Z-lot (for zigzag) concept allows for higher density, more houses per acre, without sacrificing privacy. The zigzagged lots and staggered side yards, and all exteriors, are in turn completely maintained by a homeowners association for a fee of approximately $100 per month.
In addition to the Z-lot, the innovative design by architect Bill Devereaux of Berkus Group Architects ensures privacy through the careful orientation of windows, which never look into any other but always face a garden or a public area.
A large portion of the construction budget, approximately $3,000 per home, was spent on landscaping. The community features parklike grounds with cedar fencing around the periphery, and brick pavers for driveways and sidewalks.
Interiors, with their soaring ceilings and dramatic use of windows along the rear wall of the Blair model, offer the impression of much more than the home's 2,700 square feet. The street-side exteriors, with their mullioned windows and conventional trim, appear traditional and cozy. The Blair model has a price tag of under $300,000.
THE WARRENTON AT AVALON FARM
The Warrenton at Avalon Farm offers estate living for less than $550,000. It sounds like a lot of money -- but buyers of the Warrenton model at Avalon Farm, a Montgomery County community of 39 exquisite home sites tucked into the wooded parkland of Gaithersburg on Route 124, believe their dollars buy more here than elsewhere. Why? Because Hal Magruder, chairman and founder of the Magruder Cos. and developer of Avalon Farm, envisioned this as an equestrian community, so home sites here range from two to 11 acres, and come complete with a barn. The price quoted here for the house shown includes two acres. The highly regarded school system eliminates the need for private schools, and the country setting is only minutes from urban amenities.
The house itself is stunning. At 4,500 square feet of finished living space, the Warrenton is packed with dazzling architectural detail, from beautifully finished moldings to varied ceiling heights, to Palladian-style windows, to brick exteriors. The many luxurious standard features include four fireplaces and a stunning conservatory/sun room off the living room. The
community offers three different models with a number of elevations. Custom changes such as the alteration of the floor plan to suit individual needs are often done without additional cost. Houses are positioned on the lot to accept alterations later, but most buyers choose the basic house since it comes with more than enough for luxurious estate living.