Thursday, August 24, 2006

Living large...

Even though I support the idea of this project, I’m not sure how well it will work in practice.

On a quiet, tree-lined street in the village of Oakland Mills sits a three-bedroom house, with 1 1/2 baths, a two-story living room with fireplace and a recently remodeled kitchen. The house is within walking distance of Stevens Forest Elementary School. At $339,000, it is advertised as the ideal starter home in Columbia.

The Oakland Mills Community Association and the Howard County Housing Commission bought the house in May for $287,000 and added $20,000 in renovations. The goal, however, is not to turn a quick $32,000 profit, much of which would be eaten by fees and closing costs. The stakes are much higher -- the house is part of a wager, by Oakland Mills, on the future of one of Columbia's oldest neighborhoods.

The renovation is part of Oakland Mills' multi-year revitalization effort, designed to spark interest in the 30-year-old Columbia neighborhood.

"Old does not mean bad -- old means opportunity," said Bill McCormack, chair of the Oakland Mills Housing Committee. "You can take a house and make it look new for an affordable price."
Is it really affordable? I suppose it is to some – namely, those earning more than median income, a group that I would guess has a near-saturated homeownership rate as it is.

Although it isn’t too far out of reach for them, a families making median income or less (roughly mid-80s) probably wouldn’t be able to afford this house unless they have enough cash just sitting around for a big down payment, which is pretty unlikely if they’re first time buyers -- the target group.

Not surprisingly, given the price, interest in the house hasn’t been high.
Whether buyers can be persuaded is unclear. Michelle Lewis, who works at the Elkridge office of Fairfax Realty and is the agent for the house, says buyer traffic has been slow and many people are turned off by a house with fewer than two full baths.

"Everyone complains Howard County is expensive, but a lot of first-time buyers get approved for a small mortgage and say, 'We want at minimum three bedrooms, two full baths and a garage,' " Lewis said.
This regrettable sentiment speaks to the fact that we, as a nation, are probably over-housed at this point. Over the last 50 years, as average family size has dwindled, the average size of our houses has grown considerably – from less than 1,000 square feet in 1950 to over 2,000 square feet today. While this change was driven in larger part by consumer preferences and our preponderance of “stuff” (computers, big TVs, ginormous Pottery Barn couches), zoning regulations mandating growing minimum square footage are also to blame. And, of course, there’s the fact that mortgages up to $1.1 million are tax deductible.

How much space do we really need to be comfortable? I know in America it is taboo talk about cutting back on consumption, but it might not be a bad idea to consider going smaller. After all, less space has its benefits: less to clean!

By the way, here’s a link to the listing of the house in Oakland Mills.


mary smith said...

Part of the large-house syndrome (disease?) is cultural. When those of us in much more modest homes come upon a development with houses that are six times the size of our own, inevitably the thought and quite frequently the next thing uttered is: "Wow, those people must be really wealthy". I've heard this over again since the large homes were built in my neighborhood. But actually, I do not believe they are wealthy at all, they're just willing to take on incredible debt with risky lending practices including 40 year mortgages for 40+ year old people, interest-only loans, adjustable rates etc... Which is why some are holding their breath when gas prices increase, and electricity prices increase, because it's not going to take much to tumble this 'house of cards'.

Other cultural forces exist as well. But the point is that these forces can be more powerful in decision-making than any other consideration; environmentally speaking, is it really responsible to buy a 4,000 sq foot home for two people?

And in terms of personal experience, I actually had a neighbor in one of these houses stop by my place to insult my house because of it's size (his wife did smack his arm for the comment). Some people obviously get a sense of superiority by purchasing one of these homes even if they are mortgaged to the teeth. Another experience: I remember a business dinner (not my employer) years ago, the focus of the talk around the table was 'where do you live' and 'how big is your house'. It makes a difference in some circles.

Perceptions, illusion seem to matter more than practicality, for example, do you really want to work full time during your 50's and 60's and beyond in order to impress someone now? Some say Yes! But a few of us say no, no, resoundingly no.

Hayduke said...

Mary, you bring up some interesting points. My dad and I were talking about this last night -- he tried to post a comment but it disappeared into cyberspace. He wonders what this quest for larger houses leads to. Contentment? Happiness? His experience is that neither has a definitively positive relationship with housing size, and indeed the correlation may be negative.

Personally, I'm the same as those in your example: house size matters to me. Whenever I'm given the chance, I brag about how small my house is (I thought about including something about it in the post, but everything I wrote sounded pretentious). Sure it would be nice to have a dining room and when I have children I'll probably want another bedroom and bathroom, both of which would increase the size of my house by what, 150 square feet? I'd still be under 1000...and quite happy.

mary smith said...

I'm holding back from gushing about my house as well. I can say that it is built with wonderful quality, and durable materials that are not used any longer, and the architecture is not only beautiful but practical.

Regarding happiness: I laugh at 40-some dollar BGE bills in spring, including electricity to the barn. I laugh at not having had an oil delivery last year at all. And I laugh with other friends who live like this as well. Sounds like happiness to me!

Ask your dad if he remembered to put in the password when he logged on. I think that may have been my mistake when the message didn't post immediately.

Candace said...

Housing in the MD/VA/DC area has been ridiculous. I can agree with that.
But what better way to attract people to an older Columbia village than to rehab a very nice single family house and put it on the market for the price of a condo?