Sunday, November 30, 2008

Selling out

Warning: Here I go about teardowns again. This seems to be a recurring theme/obsession of late.

(FYI: some of my posts on this topic are now appearing on another blog, The Teardown Post).

I just happened across this article, and it echoed so much of my own experience with the teardown phenomenon. My parents' neighbors are having to make the same choice: Live with an outdated kitchen, or renovate in the knowledge that the investment will end up in a landfill. It's a curious and unsettling feeling to realize that something you've put years of investment and maintenance into is something that apparently nobody else would want.

Even my own house, however charming, is woefully inadequate in the eyes of today's real estate market. This kind of house would need a new owner who doesn't just want a house, but an old house, warts and all. People like us who can live with its quirks, fix its unusual problems, and aren't lamenting the lack of certain features that seem to be standard on all new homes these days, at least around here. Granted, there are things that could be done to make it more marketable, like adding a second bathroom upstairs, which we probably will do at some point. But its essential character is old, crooked, set in its ways.

The average homebuyer isn't into quirks though. The average homeowner expects their new investment to be much lower-maintenance than ours, and include today's most-desired features. At bare minimum, these seem to include a multi-car garage, a master suite with a bathroom, at least one two-story interior room or foyer, and a big kitchen with an island and adjoining "great room." My house has none of these things. Your average pre-1980s house doesn't have those things either. With good reason, the former owner of our house was petrified that someone would buy the place, dismiss it as hopeless, and knock it down (although with 2-foot-thick stone walls, that would take some doing).

On a side note, I wonder how many of the current "living standards" in new construction are based on what buyers want, or on what builders and realtors are trying to sell. I'm sure there are surveys out there about what people are looking for in a new home, and builders then respond. But with teardowns, who exactly is doing the dismissing of an older house as useless? Is it the buyers who bypass the possibilities of older houses? Or are there others in the supply chain who make assumptions about what these buyers want? Is it the realtors who cultivate relationships with (and slant their sales tactics toward) builders who will pay top dollar and increase their commission? Is it the builders who want to "improve the neighborhood" with their latest masterpiece and see dollar signs sprouting from the front lawn?

This article and another article that recently appeared in the Times discussed the nature of objections to teardowns. The first objection is emotional and nostalgic about erasing the history of a particular house, homeowners, or neighborhood, and concerned about the impact of these losses on the community. The second objection is to what fills in the empty space, and how offensive or intrusive the infill might be.

I'm not sure which aspect troubles me more, because both in my mind are pretty offensive. I probably wouldn't object quite so strenuously if new construction blended in instead of looming over the neighborhood, and if buyers and developers weren't so quick to dismiss something as unusable. I wish that people could look at an older house in a more creative way. While there are some houses that are essentially un-adaptable for today's standards, most could be adequate or even really nice if people are willing to do some remodeling and live in less-capacious quarters.

Perhaps we could remind them that a century ago, even one bathroom was a luxury out of reach to most middle-class Americans. Do we all really need a bathroom the size of a bedroom, and a master bedroom the size of a small gymnasium? I'm hoping the price of heating fuel might discourage the popularity of the double-height window-lined family room (I know several owners of such rooms and nearly all of them complain about how hard it is to heat and keep warm). But I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Finally, for educational entertainment, Westport Now offers an interactive map and "Teardown of the Day," a regular feature chronicling the frequent teardowns in that town (home to Martha Stewart and other wealthy and famous citizens). Sad, but fascinating. I'm amazed that anyone would want to knock down something dating from the 1760s - clearly generations of people have found that house adequate for their needs, at the very least. Go pick on the dilapidated 1960s raised ranch next door.

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