There are some morsels of good news, even encouraging trends, in the current housing downturn. As the inventory of unsold Mini-Mansions on tiny lots that used to be cornfields grows, and major builders tighten their belts and lower profit forecasts, there is emerging a trend toward smaller, community style, energy efficient homes. No, this is not the Disney-esque Plantation, Florida model of community where Stepford wives patrol the sidewalks with big smiles.
A recent Wall Street Journal article reported the success of two developers in the Pacific Northwest who have taken to designing 1,000 square foot cottages, on small town-size lots. Over the last ten years, these pioneers have made a good deal of money building about fifty Craftsman-style cottages, ranging anywhere between 800-1,500 square feet. Think 1920s-style “bungalow courtyards.” These homes, all within a comfortable commuting distance to Seattle, were built in various communities and surrounding a “commons” shared by all the residents.
They can’t build them fast enough.
Who is buying these? Certainly NOT first time homebuyers, since they are significantly more expensive per square foot than the usual tract mansion. In many cases, they are refugees from the modern American suburb, willing to downsize significantly to be able to buy into a real community, where people interact with their neighbors and they can lessen their carbon footprint. Not to mention lowering their energy usage and utility bills.
Builders in other parts of the country are taking notice. Boston and Indianapolis are on track to get similar developments in the coming months, as the children of the baby boom start to look for new ways to organize society and step back from the expansive post-WWII style of suburbs that chew up forest and farmland at ridiculous rates, cause an expansion of utilities and infrastructure that become expensive to maintain and use, and cost time and money in commuting longer distances.
If this disruption in the housing market and the concurrent rise in energy prices can have the effect of making dramatic changes in the way America houses its population, then perhaps some of the pain will have been worthwhile.