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Post-recession, expect a shift in building trends

April 17, 2011|By Mary Umberger

The numbers report for the home-building industry couldn't have been more grim in February: New-home construction in the U.S. fell to a pace that would translate to about 250,000 homes for all of 2011, which would be the fewest built since the Commerce Department began keeping track in 1963.

If home building isn't dead, there's certainly time to think about what it would look like when it revives, perhaps from 2013 to 2015. That's according to John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, which studies trends in housing and development.

McIlwain regularly talks with builders and developers across the country. He expects that when home building once again is flourishing, the big master-planned subdivision that was the face of residential construction for so long won't have disappeared, but it will look different and be restyled to appeal to a broader array of buyers, especially those who have little in common with the old notion of "a family equals two parents with two kids."

He talked about what he sees ahead:

Is the big master-planned community dead?

It's not dead, but it depends on where you are in this country. There are very, very few subdivisions being started, because, by and large, there's no financing for land development. Prices have come down, but it's pretty hard for developers to go out and borrow to buy land.

Some developers are taking new approaches to building out their existing communities. They're selling sections of land to builders in smaller chunks. Instead of saying, "Why don't you take 500 lots?" as they once did, they're saying, "Take 50 lots and target them for one particular market, such as empty-nesters."

To whom are they marketing these chunks?

These builders and developers are beginning to think more in terms of life cycle than in terms of first-time buyer or move-up buyer, etc.

One group is empty-nesters in their late 50s and early 60s who are going to continue to work. They don't want a big home, but one that's open and wired and has high ceilings, which helps to visually compensate for the smaller spaces.

Older baby boomers, 56 to 65, haven't really started to come to grips with aging, but they will in the next five years. They're going to want a one-story home or an elevator for a two-story.

And home buyers today are more diverse than they have been. Builders should consider marketing to single women, some with kids and some without. Or to two women, offering them two equal master bedrooms.

There's going to be a need for multigenerational spaces that can accommodate grandparents, adult children and young grandchildren. This is going to be particularly in demand where there is heavy Latino and Asian buying.

What about the houses themselves? Do you buy into the notion that we're over the McMansion phase and desirous of something compact?

I think you're right to be skeptical of some kind of fundamental cultural shift for Americans. For post-World War II Americans, it was decades of "I want to express my success with bigger cars, bigger TVs and bigger homes."

But the median size of new homes already is steady or dropping. Smaller lots already have become acceptable because people don't have time to take care of them.

With younger adults who may be buying in a few years, longer-term, this generation isn't going to be able to afford bigger, bigger, bigger. Financial conservatism is replacing the go-for-broke house. These buyers will be willing to trade the over-the-top features that used to be put in just for resale value in exchange for flexible, open spaces that are energy-efficient. And they do want to be able to work at home, with wired and wireless connectivity.

Umberger writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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