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Home for Life

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Dangling”

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Dangling”

My husband and I spent a year looking for our first home. Every Sunday, we’d jump in the car with driving directions and hope, the latter often dashed before we even got out of the car. The open houses were often short stories unto themselves: what exactly — or who — was behind that padlocked door in the hall? Who thought to put the kitchen next to the master bedroom? What sort of people suspend a suit of armor over their bed?

One constant behind all the front doors was the fast and cheap kitchen renovation. Done no doubt at the urging of the real estate agent, who warned that no one would ever buy a house without an updated kitchen, these cookie-cutter remodels featured identical green granite countertops, frosted glass cabinet doors (revealing a hint of the Italian pasta boxes inside), black and white checkerboard floor tile and wannabe Viking ranges.

In the end, we found our house, built in 1907 and featuring a fully functional and actually pretty hip kitchen, untouched since the late ’60s. All those homes we’d visited over the previous years found buyers, too — and I’ll bet that many of those kitchens were ripped out and remodeled anew.

When did “rm w/a vu” turn into Viking range, cathedral ceiling, granite countertop and four-car garage? At what point did the house become more about the future tenant than the current resident? It’s hard to trace the moment, but let’s hope it’s passed. Because for too long, home design has been hijacked by the allure of resale value. Maybe now we can begin again to think of our houses not as investments but as homes.

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Spills”

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Spills”

The concern for resale value was never more apparent to me than it was a few years ago when I spent nearly a year consulting for a developer of planned communities — like the ones in Phoenix or Orlando or Las Vegas with many foreclosed homes that you now see on the news. The company had asked our team of design consultants to “rethink the way we sell houses.” We interviewed numerous potential home buyers about how they made their purchasing decisions, and learned the extent to which resale concerns dictated people’s choices — about square footage, location, number and type of rooms, brand of appliances, even paint colors.

The decades-long pattern of people moving to new, bigger houses as they got new, higher-paying jobs is in retreat.

We also spoke with builders working for the developer who had a checklist of “necessary” amenities, gleaned purely from industry perceptions. People want “X,” the builders would say, referring to such marketing darlings as Viking ranges, Sub-Zero refrigerators, walk-in steam showers and master suite seating areas. Lenders likewise told us they arrived at loan-making decisions based on the perceived value of these add-ons.

Today, it’s clear that resale should not have been so big a driver of residential design. After all, how often do people feel compelled to use their master suite lounge area — or, for that matter, their living room?

As one mortgage broker I recently spoke with observed, “The whole idea of buying with resale value in mind is gone. All the countertops, the backyards, all those things are meaningless.”

What that developer should have asked us to rethink was not the way houses are sold but how they are designed. More than 1.6 million properties went into foreclosure in the first half of 2010. And the decades-long pattern of people moving to new, bigger houses as they got new, higher-paying jobs is in retreat. Now we need to think more sensibly about building houses that people want to stay in.

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Hi Voltage”

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Hi Voltage”

The 2009 Builder/American Lives New Home Shopper Survey showed a trend toward smaller house size in 2010. The “unprecedented housing bust, which brought about the largest loss of home equity in history,” the magazine reported, “has fostered fundamental attitudinal changes in new-home prospects…. The desire for a McMansion seems to have been supplanted by the desire for a more responsible home.”

People still want amenities, that same survey suggests, but they also want energy-efficient heating and cooling. Yet the status quo makes such greener options hard to come by: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently announced a decision to block green financing projects in California, for example, making solar and other energy efficiency projects nearly impossible to achieve. The state is suing to overturn the decision.

Perhaps recognizing that they’ll be staying in their homes longer, buyers are starting to look for universal design, ranging from wheelchair-accessible bathrooms to single-story homes — options that will allow them to “age in place” — in other words, move into a home they can grow old in. They want accessory dwellings (a k a granny flats) to accommodate rising numbers children moving home after college and aging parents needing care. So far, the market isn’t offering many of these, a lack one can chalk up somewhat to inertia but also to legitimate obstacles ranging from zoning and code restrictions to difficulties with financing.

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Private Property”

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Private Property”

A last survey finding worth reflecting on: Fully 85 percent of the respondents agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” with the suggestion that “community is just as important as the home.” What exactly they meant by community is hard to say. Friends in the neighborhood perhaps? An interesting mix of neighbors? A vibrant shopping street? A nearby Starbucks? Community is notoriously hard to define and perhaps even harder for builders to provide. But it should be given as much attention as building equity.

I have an old kitchen and not a whole lot of square footage, but I know all my neighbors, shop at locally-owned businesses without getting in the car, and water 15 different kinds of vegetables in my backyard with a simple “gray water” system that only recently became legal. These are things that make me want to stay where I am. What’s outside the front door is at least as important as what’s behind it.