So much for starter homes…

Architect Magazine had an interesting article about why so-called “Starter Homes” – affordable small homes for young families and singletons tired of renting – aren’t being built.

I’ve been quite happy in The House of Nonsense (aka La Casa de Tontería), owing to my training in living la vida pequeña. Not all starter homes are tiny; newlyweds can live large in 1700 square feet. As I pointed out elsewhere, small homes have been the American standard since the ’90s, contrary to the stereotype of McMansions.

So what changed?

The article cites some typical reasons – a tough economy, higher prices for materials – and some found surprising. For example, some communities have zoning restrictions that mandate high-end features which (unsurprisingly) increase the taxable value.

My neighborhood allows a variety of houses. A Victorian-style new home, an old farmhouse, a brick bungalow, a salt-box, a ’70s ranch, and a converted fishing cottage co-exist here.  The housing market hasn’t rebounded yet, but the important thing seems to be that houses are occupied by householders who pay their taxes.

There’s even variety among similar blueprints. My home has vinyl siding and a cathedral ceiling in the main room. Most of its “sister” houses have low ceilings; some have brick fronts; some lack porches. The people down the street sacrificed a back yard for a one-car garage.

As a result, the starter home allows for a lot of personalization.

Oddly enough, personality plays a role in the death of American starter homes. Renters have high requirements for their first home.

“The expectation of what a customer thinks should be in a house at that entry-level price point is kind of crazy,” says Matt Riley, director of sales and marketing at Raleigh, N.C.–based Royal Oaks Building Group. “They want granite countertops, tile backsplash, and stainless steel appliances. People are used to the newer apartment complexes.”

My apartments progressively improved as I was willing to shell out more money. The last one was most homey. It had its own furnace, laundry room, and brand-new appliances. Real-wood molding framed every door and window.

However, the windows of the neighboring building were so close that I never opened the bedroom blinds. The endless parade of neighbours were always a crapshoot – just like every other apartment I rented. And the landlord scheduled a rent increase even while maintenance declined.

So I wasn’t put out by The House of Nonsense’s linoleum or its single-sink vanity counters. Heck, I wasn’t even scared off by the deer head mounted over the toilet. (True story.) Sure, I wanted to do replace the more obvious handiwork of Jerkface MacGuyver and paint over the evidence of crayon-wielding children. But I knew I could personalize the house in a way that I couldn’t in any place I’d lived.

That’s why it’s a little sad to think fewer people will be able to have their own Casa de Tontería.

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