The Irrationality of the American Home Buyer

Austin recently started conversion of its old Mueller airport into a housing development. There are some things right about it: mixed use, public space. But the actual houses are crazy. Look at this photo:

(Thanks Google!)

Note that it has huge stand-alone houses that almost completely cover the available space. The alleys are a nice touch, but they aren't very efficient in terms of space. The houses are so close together that you could almost reach out one window and touch the other building.

Consider this analogous random chunk of suburban London. The houses are touching! But that leaves more room for a back yard.

Maybe its just me, but I would rather have my house touch my neighbor's house and have some open space. Having the houses touch actually gives more room for windows that you want to look out. The American style might have more windows, but there is less view.

I am not sure exactly who to blame... It could be the American architects, planners, and builders. It is partly their fault. But in the end they build what American buyers want to buy. And those buyers are not very rational, I fear.

Is there anything we can do?


Macneil Shonle said...

There may be regulations exacerbating the situation. For example, laws against condo conversion and duplex construction. But I think the "problem" is mostly on the demand side.

Simply put, there isn't much land, and particularly not close to good schools or cool* places. (*And Austin certainly counts as a place cool enough... and that's cool in terms of the marginal homeowner, the tastes of the *average* homeowner are irrelevant.) Many homebuyers will completely tolerate any layout, and if one is more space efficient than another, they will enjoy the lower price due to the increase in supply.

But perhaps the two plans are equivalent in terms of space efficiency? There's strong demand for standalone homes, too. [Again, anti-condo zoning could play a part here.]

Amin Shali said...

Interesting... more windows and less view! When I first came here I thought this is part of the American culture to build and buy houses this way. Inside cities houses are pretty close and touching, I think because of the space issue. In urban areas, however, since there is enough space, houses are father apart. In contrary, back home where my family lives, even in the areas with enough space, they build houses which are touching! It's rare to find American style of buildings there.

Jim Bob said...

It's a System. Rationality has to be viewed in relation to the system.

The American house buyer is subject to the irrationality of the the history and culture of development and laws in their region, and for new housing stock, the irrationality of the system that includes developers, municipal, county and state (lack of) control over zoning and building process via zoning and public health regulation, a mortgage-finance and banking system that aligns toward particular outcomes, from green-field lot to foundation to end-user mortgage; plus a cycling boom-bust economic and population growth and migration environment.

- Exceedingly few buyers are in a position to develop and build their own housing.

- Note also the tremendous inertia of existing housing stock; old housing stock can persist for 100 to 200 years and longer. The buyer must purchase what is available, and will tend to buy what they are familiar with.

- Mortgage financing participants often have particular guidelines for financing condominiums and party-wall developments that some developers prefer not to pay for.

- Party-wall construction in fee-simple land ownership is mostly a big-city thing (via fire-proof brick), from an era before condo associations existed.

- On housing development from the state-by-state perspective, note that in Texas, there is no zoning outside of city limits at the county level, and that tends to mean, for example, a city like Austin has no control over the housing that will eventually be incorporated into the city limits over the coming decades, making for terrible city planning in the long run. Hardly rational.

What can be done? Most of what can be done is political, and measured in decades of organized effort in a cast of thousands that can include modifying the state constitution:
- be a well financed community-oriented developer with a vision
- develop a market and understanding for "smart growth" development in high density areas
- create municipal zoning bylaws that encourage particular desirable outcomes (this one is a decades-long process alone, and developer/construction business associations actively work against restrictions to development.
- have a housing finance process that serves less common housing structures (inertia, did anyone say inertia?)
- in Texas, one can build anything outside of a city, where there is no zoning, and only health (water/septic) regulation. But building outside of the city is contrary to dense "smart growth" ideals.

Tiago said...

Everywhere the search for more space is a problem. 30 years ago were less people, less houses, more space... but time has changed. That is why I moved to Australia thanks to a top real estate agents in sidney who offered me a house in an amazing area where space is not missing.