Homes slimming down


Think smaller. Maybe closer. Not necessarily cheaper.

Those were some of the new-home themes that emerged at the 2003 International Builders Show sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders in Las Vegas.

After years of reporting on the ever-larger size of the average U.S. single-family home, Gopal Ahluwali, vice president of research for the builders' group, said recent figures indicate that the size of the average new home is leveling off at about 2,300 square feet. This is the first time in seven years that the average size hasn't grown. And about 65 percent of all homes built are between 1,600 and 2,400 square feet.

That smaller trend might take a few years to catch up with many builders and buyers who still find that demand for larger homes remains strong. But most of the show houses at the NAHB's annual trade show reflected a slimmed-down future.

Sales of smaller homes most often appeal to first-time buyers, builders said, and that population continued to be a driving force in the record sales of new houses during the past two years. Also, an aging baby boomer population figures to need less space while still being able to afford premium housing and second homes. And land values continue to rise, forcing some builders to construct more homes closer together.

First-time buyer Isaac Stalk and his wife bought a 1,700-square-foot single-family home in the Edgewood development of Lord Willoughby's Rest last year for about $185,000. Stalk said the home's size is about right for his family of five but that they would like to have a larger yard some day.

"We had lived in apartments," Stalk said. "The house is a pretty good size."

Ryland Homes, which is building the development, said most of the houses are between 1,100 and 2,000 square feet. Ryland expects to build 144 of these homes, which are the smallest houses the company builds in this region.

The builder is marketing the detached houses as an alternative for first-time buyers and others who are considering townhouses. Priced between $174,000 and $223,000, the single-family homes have larger yards than many townhouses. Ryland is hoping to persuade customers to buy a little bit more now so that they won't have to trade up later.

Beazer Homes is building condominiums and townhouses in Columbia between 1,440 and 2,100 square feet. Prices range from $257,000 to more than $328,000. The company's targets are first-time buyers and couples whose children are grown and have moved to their own homes. The company recently sold 62 condominiums at Fieldstone at River Hill in Clarksville.

"It makes sense when you think about the demographics," said Dan Gregory, general sales manager for Beazer Homes of Maryland. "We're going to see a lot of folks scaling down."

Baltimore-area builders like Ryland and Beazer said they still get plenty of requests for the ever-larger homes. And they said sales in the 2,400-square-feet-and-up category remain brisk. A recent survey by Champion Mortgage found that most homeowners do not consider their houses large enough for weekend activities or adding a home office.

Smaller, cozier

But exhibitors at this year's builders show presented smaller, cozier alternatives. Skokie, Ill.-based Portland Cement Association, for example, teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to show a simple square dwelling of precast concrete panels. The 1,237-square-foot house was erected in a day and destined to be disassembled after the show to be reassembled elsewhere.

"We'd done the big house. It was time for a change," said Bruce McIntosh, the cement association's managing director of communications.

Genesis Homes, a Michigan-based producer of modular houses, erected a charming 1,900-square-foot craftsman-style cottage on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The appealing design, with a sizable front porch and a clever, compact floor plan, attracted a steady stream of visitors from the estimated 90,000 people attending the convention.

The chief example of paring down was the New American Home, the annual official showcase of new design trends, building products and construction techniques. It was sponsored by the National Council of the Housing Industry, Builder magazine and Home Planners.

Historic switch

The 2003 home was really three attached townhouses as organizers switched from a stand-alone, single-family house for the first time in New American Home's 20-year history.

None of the residences was small - they ranged in size from 2,775 square feet to 3,151 square feet. But townhouses and smaller homes underscore one of the growing realities of homebuilding.

As the price of land increases and available land becomes scarcer and more strictly regulated, attached housing with its smaller footprint for each residence is an increasingly popular option for land use.

In the Baltimore area, land has become so scarce that some builders fear they will be forced to build larger, more expensive homes to justify the cost of the land.

"It's hard to pay $150,000 a lot and put a 1,600-square-foot house on it and charge three times that," said Earl Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for Ryland Homes' Baltimore division.

The townhouses showcased at the builders' show consisted of a cluster of six attached residences with garages largely hidden from public view. Owners were provided maximum privacy and outdoor access, with views of the green golf course, the distant lake and the desert.

Unlike the rows of townhouses that sit side-by-side with balconies overlooking garage doors, these townhouses, designed by Walt Richardson of RNM Architecture Planners of Newport Beach, Calif., were clustered more like a hacienda.

Courtyard garages

All garages are in the interior courtyard, as are the entrances to the homes. That makes for a tight interior configuration and some inconvenience if all owners decide to back out of the garage at the same time, but it has the advantage of hiding garage doors from the street.

Chicago builder Court Airhart questioned whether buyers would like bedrooms on different levels, which some of the townhouses have.

"Most of our buyers are thinking not only how they will use a house in five or 10 years, but also whether it is attractive for resale," he observed. "I can't imagine 99 percent of the Realtors would allow their buyers to buy such a house."

Sharon Stangenes is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Sun Real Estate Editor Trif Alatzas contributed to this article.

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