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Nowhere to go but up

R.I.P., ranch house. A buildup of new two-stories is changing the landscape.

October 02, 2005|Judd Slivka | Special to The Times

THE one-level ranch home, that stalwart of Western living, is being replaced by row after row of closely packed multistory dwellings.

Single-story architecture sits right at the confluence of two trends driving the home-building industry: consumer demand for bigger homes and the increasing price of open land.

The near-disappearance of the single-level style in new construction is a milestone in regional land use -- a deviation from decades of building that emphasized one-story homes. And one that seems ironic as the large baby boomer population is aging and more likely to be seeking out places without stairs.

About 55% of all new single-family homes in the U.S. had two or more stories in 2004, up from 30% in 1978, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

This upward movement is not limited to urban settings. There are entire developments being built in the Inland Empire, where the bulk of Southern California's new-home growth is, that don't have a single-level home in them.

Two of D.R. Horton's and three of Ryland Homes' Riverside County developments, for example, have no one-story options. Of 30 new developments with single-family detached homes currently being built in Riverside County, only about 30% of the plans are single-story.

"From what we've seen, our customers want the most home, the best home value on a lot," said Steve Ruffner, the president of KB Home's Riverside division.

Real estate agents report similar consumer preferences on resale homes.

"It's really only senior citizens who want the single-story homes," said Denise Gentile, a Corona real estate agent with Re/Max Partners. "I did an open house of a one-story home, and all that people could talk about was how the backyard's too small and the house isn't big enough."

Cue the second story, which adds square footage without taking up more space on the groundand enables more homes to be built per acre.

"Square footage is most important for the buyers from the get-go," said Alma Dizon, a Tarbell Realtors agent in Riverside. "Everyone wants 2,000 square feet as a start, even first-time homeowners. Very few people will sacrifice square footage."

Consumers polled in 2003 were living in homes with a median 1,845 square feet, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders. What they wanted was 2,386 square feet.

Companies such as KB regularly survey home buyers, and what they learn -- people want space for their stuff -- goes to the corporate architects who design homes. Their job is to translate those desires into a workable footprint for the lot size.

How much house can be put on a site? The answer depends on the lot.

Builders want maximum square footage on minimum lot size. One way to accomplish that is with two-story homes, which often have less than 10 feet from the porch to the sidewalk and are placed eight feet from the house next door.

Home size has been expanding since the middle of the last century. In 1950, according to home builders' association statistics, the average new American home was 983 square feet. Fast forward to 2003 and the average newly built home was 2,330 square feet.

Meanwhile, lots are getting smaller. Twenty years ago, the average lot in California was more than 7,500 square feet. Now it's about 6,417 square feet.

A drive along Streambay Court in Riverside reveals how much can be crammed onto so little. On Streambay, there's a 3,006-square-foot house, listed for $549,000, on a 4,800-square-foot lot -- a plan that is repeated over and over.

More houses per acre equal more dollars for builders and reveal another reason for this shift upward -- profit margins.

That's the observation of Andy McCue, managing director of the Edward J. Blakely Center for Sustainable Suburban Development at UC Riverside. A Riverside resident for more than 25 years, McCue remembers when areas that are now brimming with homes had nothing there.

"They're trying to get as many houses on the land as possible," he said. "The major reason is clearly economic."

In less than a decade, the average cost of a lot of about 6,400 square feet in California has risen more than 100%, from about $76,000 in 1996 to nearly $163,000 in 2004, builders report.

Whether in the Inland Empire, Las Vegas, Phoenix or other high-growth areas, the low, spread-out homes of the mid-20th century are giving way to more compact, vertical homes. The result is that suburbs are starting to resemble more urban areas. Just look at how much space is between each house.

"You drive past," said Robert Harris, a USC professor of architecture and urban planning, "and you see that the teeth aren't quite as widely spaced as they used to be."

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