In Land of Giants, Smallest Houses Larger Than Ever
Home Buyers Redefine Concept of Starter Home

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006; A01

A young family came recently to Vienna real estate agent Reza Rofougaran with what should have been a simple request: They wanted a small house.

But in the Washington suburbs, that's easier said than done. The family -- an Iranian doctor waiting for his U.S. credentials, his wife and their child -- couldn't find what they were looking for, a townhouse of about 1,400 square feet, a size that in earlier eras easily accommodated a three-bedroom layout. They settled for buying a two-bedroom apartment.

"There is a lot of demand for smaller houses, but you cannot find any of them on the new market," Rofougaran said.

Much has been made of the explosion in size of the largest houses in the area, a trend that actually might be slowing somewhat with cooling housing prices and rising energy costs. Less noted, though, has been the shift at the other end of the scale, where the category once thought of as the "starter home" has all but vanished, or at least expanded beyond recognition.

In Fairfax County, the median size of new townhouses -- for many, the entry into homeownership -- is nearly 1,900 square feet, larger than the median size of a single-family house built in the county in 1970. The median size of Fairfax's new single-family houses has more than doubled to more than 3,700 square feet, suggesting that the smaller end of the spectrum has shifted as much as houses at the large end. And apartments and condominium units aren't picking up the slack: The proportion of Fairfax families living in multifamily housing has barely budged since 1970.

The small starter home is getting scarcer in Montgomery County as well: The average townhouse has grown by nearly 40 percent since the 1980s, to more than 1,800 square feet, and the average condominium unit has doubled in that time, to nearly 1,500 square feet. The excessive size of townhouses built in Clarksburg helped spark the scandal over secret design changes in that planned community.

The virtual disappearance of smaller new homes -- which has occurred even as the average size of households has declined -- has implications for the region, planners and builders agree. It worsens sprawl, they say, because some residents end up living farther out, where smaller new homes are easier to find because land costs less.

The trend also goes to the heart of the region's housing affordability crisis -- a seemingly obvious fact that some experts say is nonetheless overlooked. They argue that the easiest way to make housing more affordable, without getting mired in talk of government subsidies or set-asides for certain income levels, is simply to make it easier for developers to build more small homes. Buyers can still find some older, modestly sized houses, but in a fast-growing region where many small houses are being replaced with bigger ones, the stock of existing homes goes only so far.

"The only way to make housing more affordable is to make housing units smaller," said Stephen S. Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

There is disagreement, though, about why that's such a hard goal to achieve. Some builders say that they'd like to build smaller houses but that sky-high land prices, restrictive zoning and neighbors opposed to higher-density housing make it difficult for developers to build anything but big.

Architect Christian Lessard said he and the other developers of MetroWest, the 2,250-home project underway near the Vienna Metro station, would happily build a larger number of smaller homes, but community opposition limited the number of units they could build. To make back the cost of the land, he said, the builders designed the townhouses they were allowed to build to be as large and expensive as possible -- about 2,500 square feet, a size that in similar developments sells for about $500,000.

Lessard acknowledged that the outcome was not ideal.

"We're only designing for 20 percent of the population right now. That can't last forever," he said. "As a society, we'll have a problem because eventually no one's going to be able to afford this other stuff."

Local government planners say there is little they can do beyond measures in place, such as requiring builders to set aside some units as moderately priced. These policies produce only so many affordable units, and builders generally charge more for the market-rate units to make up the cost of building the set-asides.

Some developers argue that governments should implement so-called "cottage zoning" to make it easier to build small houses more densely in certain areas, as cities such as Seattle have done. It would be unpopular at first, but neighbors could be won over if the new houses were well-designed, said Takoma Park architect Ralph Bennett.

"There's no question it can be done," he said. "It's just a question of going to the regulators and saying: 'This needs to be done.' "

Fairfax planning director Fred Selden said the county is considering using incentives to ensure a mix of unit sizes in new condominium and apartment projects, but there are no plans to use cottage zoning or any other means to influence the size of townhouses or single-family homes. There's no doubt, he said, that developers have an easier time getting approval for projects with fewer, larger townhouses because they produce less traffic and less competition for on-street parking, since bigger units come with more garage space.

But even if new zoning made it easier to build smaller homes, some skeptics still wonder: Is there enough demand for smaller homes to entice developers to build them? Some builders say that even if they identify a demand for small homes, they worry that this niche will be gone once they're through the approval and construction process four years down the line. Most decide it's safer just to build the usual, big, three-story townhouse.

"No one wants to bet on what the trend will be in five years . . . so they say, let's stay with what we know," said Mark Stemen, a division president for K. Hovnanian Homes in the Washington area. K. Hovnanian is offering more moderately sized townhouses in some of its communities, in the 1,500-1,700-square-foot range, but those are targeted at retirees looking to downsize or for a second home.

Some are even more skeptical, saying that the reason for the dearth of small homes is that nobody wants them anymore, nor will they again. Americans are so accustomed to valuing size, the argument goes, that even first-time home buyers will stretch their price limit, or delay buying, instead of settling for less space. The increased emphasis on housing as an investment also figures in: Even if buyers don't need much space, they assume they'll make money only on a larger house.

"The answer is simple: the consumer doesn't want it. The consumer is convinced that bigger is better," said Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist with the Washington-based National Association of Homebuilders.

Trying to prove otherwise are developers in the New Urbanism movement, which seeks to build communities on the model of older small towns. Its proponents argue that home buyers will happily live in more modestly sized houses if they are well-designed and set within appealing neighborhoods with shops nearby.

Steve Maun, head of Leyland Alliance, which has New Urbanist projects underway in Norfolk and elsewhere on the East Coast, said the roughly 1,300-square-foot homes his company builds are most popular with those nearing retirement, but they are also drawing some young families for whom a walkable community matters more than size.

"There's a perception that density's a bad thing, but well-executed density is not a bad thing, and we're starting to get enough examples that we can say, 'Come with me; let us show you,' " he said.

Advocates for smaller homes acknowledge there's a ways to go, though. North Carolina architect Sarah Susanka said the popularity of her best-selling book, "The Not So Big House," suggests a growing appreciation that, with design, "you can have a house that lives much larger than its square footage." But it's still common to determine a house's quality by its size, she said.

This is particularly unfortunate at the lower end of the market, she said, since it means that buyers often end up with homes that are quite large but otherwise poorly made. Such buyers are shortchanged by not having the option of smaller but better-made homes.

"Across the culture, we see people focusing on square footage at the cost of reduced quality," she said. "It's, 'How many square feet can I get with my dollar?' There's no assumption that there can be any quality. It's very sad."

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