Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thinking about housing

MSN has an article up at the moment about today's suburbs becoming tomorrow's slums. It's kind of an odd piece -- if the traditional buyers of those tract mansions give up on them because costs of commuting get to be too high, or the owners decide to downsize as they get older, why on earth would today's urban poor move out to the fringes of Cobb County (to use an Atlanta area example) to turn those McMansions into multi-family housing? They could afford the commute even less, and would have absolutely no reason to move that far away from where all the jobs are. Seems like a far more likely fate as the population of the urban cores climbs again would be for the McMansions to simply moulder there abandoned indefinitely, the 21st century equivalent of the abandoned houses from the 20th century that a person sees now when driving in rural areas. Society changed, and no one needed those houses, either out on what used to be a farm or in the small towns that have shrunk over time, and owners eventually just abandoned them to collapse on their own.

I've actually been thinking about something similar in a vague way lately. I watch a lot of HGTV. I know. It's a sickness, but at least it's a fairly benign one. One of the shows I watch a lot is "House Hunters." And one thing I've noticed over and over and over is that 99% of the househunters want brand-new construction. They want to move into a place where the paint is still wet and nothing's been used. At all. They want to be the first persons to slide a bottle of overpriced merlot into the pretentious wine rack in the kitchen (which is almost always located in the worst possible place for storing wine, someplace hot and bright, but that's a digression), the first persons to use the ostentatious multi-head shower that's big enough to service a high school football team, the first persons to discover that they've just spent way too much money on a house that has so many rooms they'll never use half of them. . . Once in awhile there's an exception, but not often.

Well, one thing that hit me is that every single one of those househunters also talks about re-sale value a few years down the road. Apparently it hasn't occurred to them to ask that if they're not interested in buying a "used" house, why should they expect anyone else to be? If a house from the 1990s seems too dated and too old, how is a house from 2009 going to come across to buyers ten years from now? I can see it now: "OMG. All that stainless steel. That's so passe. And those hideous granite counter tops. . . they're going to have to go. And this shower? What was the builder thinking? Hadn't they ever heard of water conservation?!"

I used to think mobile homes, trailer parks, were the ultimate in disposable housing. Maybe not. Maybe the real disposable housing is sitting out in the high dollar 'burbs, but that just hasn't become obvious yet.

[Photo is from a small town in western Kansas somewhere between Fort Larned and Fort Hays. We could tell that at one time it had been a fairly prosperous little farming community that covered the equivalent of 12 blocks or so and had had a commercial strip several blocks long. When we drove through in 2006 there was no longer a single business open, nothing. The residential area was still looking lived in, but we all knew that wasn't going to last much longer.]


  1. After going through buying our house last summer, I have become addicted to House Hunters as well. And I also watch that show Property Virgins too.

  2. i watch that channel alllllll the granddaughter just bought a new home...she had her choice of many many houses, but her choices were 'nice homes in bad nighborhoods' or fixeruppers in good they opted for a new brick home in a very nice subdivision outside of Waco in a community with good schools, low taxes and not a lot of neighbors..its a 3-2 with huge yard front and back..on the small side, but she said maybe by the time they decide to have kids they can add on or enlarge..she's 21 and so much smarter than i was at that age..she's been saving for this house since before she even had a boyfriend..they have their 10percent down plus will get the $8,000 back from Obama...
    I like that she is so smart and driven to get what she wants.

  3. on another matter completely..dont you just love dispatches from the island?...

  4. Love Dispatches from the Island. He's got such a great sense of humor about the whole celebrity thing.

    I prefer fixer uppers myself. At least with an old house when something goes wrong you're halfway expecting it. With new construction you just feel ripped off when windows won't close right or the plumbing turns out to have water hammer.

  5. Although my house is paid off and all mine..there are times I fantasize about what I truly want. I will never have that, so I am relegated to watching these shows and the "what-ifs."

    In my mind, I can physically make all the changes I desire, but in reality - no way. So other than basic upkeep and maintenance, I am stuck with what I have - and it is nice.

  6. They could afford the commute even less,

    I don't know about that, they may be taken over by bottom feeders that the taxpayers support. They only have to go to town once a week to shop for food, that we also pay for.

    I've never bought a new home, wouldn't want to, I just bought homes to live in and never gave resale value a thought at all.

    I admire those that buy a modest home when they are young and raise a family in it and grow old and die in it.

    My current home is 12 X 15 feet but I'm okay with that, it's as good as place to die as any other place and it's free and clear and cheap to live here.

    Well, that is just the part I actually live in, I have other areas to store things in and work in. But I don't heat them and all that. Most things don't give a damn if they are warm or cold.

    And if I had the cost of a nicer place I couldn't afford to help others.

  7. I watch that show too and you're so right, everyone wants "new." That's why we have sprawl. My town has plenty of great older homes for sale with much nicer details and woodwork than you'll ever find in these new places. Personally I prefer a house with a story and a history to it, but then I am into historic preservation.

    You are right, it is a recipe for more abandoned houses in the future. And picture you show is a sign of the coming mess we'll be in. Too many malls are now outdated and instead of re-doing them they build a new mall and the other one gets abandoned. I've seen it in Hawaii. It's really ridiculous the waste we have in this country. Everything is seen as disposable.

  8. I watch these shows too. I also watch the ones where a couple remodels their house and a realtor tells them what he could sell it for. I have to laugh at these, because you're right -- these people look at crown moldings and tray ceilings and granite countertops and cheap faux-maple cabinetry. They look at PAINT COLORS, for god's sake.

    My house is a 1950's cape cod that hadn't had any updates since 1975. But it has good bones; solid wood construction, plaster walls. 14 years after moving in we are still slowly progressing with updates. We will pay off our mortgage in less than 10 years because what we can't pay cash for, we don't do or we put off. Yes, I'd love to have a lovely kitchen too. But instead I'm refacing the cabinets and I'm going to bring in a contractor to do some minor work -- maybe about $5000 of electrical and ripping out superfluous cabinets and flooring.

    But when I retire, my house will be PAID FOR.

  9. Life is a whole lot easier if you live in a third world part of a second world life.

    My three servants cost less than $700 a month. This includes my interpreter/friend that I am paying $500 per month, total health care for she and her 9 year old son with ADD.

    I don't pay a dime in taxes unless I go to the capital or the usa. I give, the local orphanage got nine new computers, the local burn unit got a new computer and enough gowns that no patient gets cold this winter.

  10. I guess I don't fit the mold of House Hunters. I've only owned two houses in my life, one built in 1946 (purchased in 1999) and my current home (built in 1900). I specifically told the realtors I WASN'T interested in looking at new construction. I find those kinds of houses and neighborhoods to be bland and poorly constructed. My current home is solid brick with 9 inch thick walls. Stays cool in the summer, warm in the winter. And I only paid about 100K for it. Wouldn't trade it for a McMansion priced at 5 times that amount.

  11. The newest stick-built house we've ever owned (and we've had several) was built in 1922. It was a classic American 4-square. The house I liked the most, though, was a balloon frame saltbox built around 1890. I hated to move away from that one.


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