Younger buyers want to forgo maintenance

The American Dream: A two-story house with a yard, picket fence, 2.5 children and a golden retriever. The problem: Someone has to mow the lawn, paint the fence, shuttle the kids and walk the dog.

Professional carpoolers and dog walkers have the last two chores covered, but for many homeowners the notion of home maintenance is dismaying. They grew up watching their parents spend weekends with honey-do lists, and they are not going to follow in their footsteps.

"They don't want to do that stuff," said Dave Smith of Chicago, Cambridge Homes' vice president of marketing. "They have games to play!"

While the baby boomers entered homeownership with the assumption that 40 years of Saturdays were spoken for, says Smith, Generation X (ages 30 to 45) and the Millennials (ages 18 to 29) "have better things to do."

Yes, these young people are lured by the federal tax credit and low home prices into homeownership. But, no, they are not lining up to buy riding mowers.

A condominium or townhouse, sans yard, suits many of these buyers just fine, Smith said. "They have no peer pressure to have a single-family house, as previous generations did," he said. "They're marrying later, having kids later. They're buying as single people — women especially. When it comes to home maintenance, they ask, ‘Who is going to do it for me?' and ‘What will it cost?'"

To serve this market, builders such as Town & Country Homes offer condominiums and townhomes.

In addition to young singles and couples, buyers include divorced parents, the builder said. "They want the equity and tax benefits of homeownership, and the permanence of staying in one school district," said Donna Zizek, Town & Country's marketing manager. "But they don't want to spend their weekends doing home chores."

A three-story townhouse in Plainfield, Ill., fit the bill for Melisa Lovekamp. "I wanted to buy instead of continuing to rent, but didn't even look at single-family houses because I don't have time to do things like water flowers," Lovekamp said. "The best part about living here? Someone else shovels my snow before I leave for work in the morning."

Contributing to the maintenance-free, multifamily housing purchase trend is availability, notes William H. Lucy, University of Virginia professor of urban and environmental planning.

"Thirty years ago, the American Dream didn't necessarily mean a condo or townhouse because there just weren't that many available," he said. "Now, the young buyers have these choices."

Today's new-home shopper looks for self-sufficient homes, builders say. In the National Association of Home Builders' "Home of the Future" study, industry experts said low-maintenance interiors are "critical" or "very critical" in new homes. The higher the square footage, the more likely buyers want less upkeep.

Thanks to electronics, today's new house saves the homeowner time, energy and unnecessary repairs, said Utz Baldwin, CEO of Indianapolis-based Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association. "A weather indicator tells the sprinkler to not turn on because it's raining," he said. "An appliance notifies the homeowner that it needs service before it breaks down. You push a button to put your house in ‘goodbye' mode to dim the lights and turn down the air conditioner. Controls are simpler, wireless and integrated. Security, lighting, entertainment systems are all connected."

Outside, builders say buyers favor brick or fiber-cement siding over wood that needs painting. They want roofs with long warranties. Instead of big lawns, they want low-maintenance stone or brick patios, or decks that don't need annual resealing.

When home buyers reach the kids-and-pets life stage and buy single-family houses, they bring home-maintenance expectations with them, builders say. While chore-free living has long been the standard of multifamily housing (Faucet broken? Call the super), it is fast-becoming the norm in single-family housing, too.

"The idea is to spend more time on family and less time on house work," said Stephen Melman, NAHB director of economic services.

To feed their hunger for help, some builders offer maintenance services.

"Our clients are white-collar workers who just don't have time to complete simple tasks like hanging pictures," reports Mark Hickman of Hinsdale, Ill.-based Hickman Homes. "They would rather spend their time and energy on work or their families."

A new trade has emerged — maintenance pros who do everything from refilling your water softener to house-sitting when you leave.

Clarendon Hills, Ill., builder Tom Molidor launched UpKeepers Inc. in 2007 after fielding more calls from homeowners needing maintenance. "No job is too small, too dirty or too complicated," he tells clients. Recent gigs include hooking up a home theater system and fixing a sticking door.

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