Why the Current State of New Developer Housing

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I've seen many new home developments with vaulted ceilings, mini-vineyards, huge houses on little tiny lots...Why can't some developer built some homes for us regular people? A normal sized home with plenty of closet space and a decent (not designer) kitchen that is set more than 3 feet from the neighbors house.

I realize that they need to make money, but more people could afford homes in this state if the builders weren't catering to people who already own 2 and 3 houses.

The developer has a certain amount of LAND for a development. That's all they have, and they are not getting any more. For this, they paid a set amount of money. Furthermore, once they have it, it's likely to be years going through the permit process before they can even start to build. That money they invested in the project, both upfront and as the project goes along? If they wanted to invest it in say the stock market, it's be earning income - for years - before the first spade of earth gets dug. If it's three years from purchase to completion, that's a 33.1 percent necessary return just to break even from the opportunity cost (at ten percent per year - very doable). If it's five, as is more likely, they need 61 percent. If it's seven, 94.9 percent. To this, add property taxes as they go, the costs of environmental studies and obtaining the permits and paying for inspections and certifying everything. If there's a loan going on, they have the cost of interest going on as well. Now there are ameliorating factors as well, but given the sheer amount of work that has to be done before they nail the first two boards together, a rational person could maybe be forgiven for thinking that society wants housing to be prohibitively expensive.

Furthermore, it's silly, but people buy a property based upon the structure and the amenities. Well, it's not silly to make that one of the factors, but people go overboard. They will buy a 5 bedroom 2800 square foot house on a 3000 square foot lot before they'll buy a 3 bedroom 1800 square foot house on a 20,000 square foot lot. The same structure is really worth a lot more when it's on a bigger lot, and even a lesser structure may really be worth more if it's on a bigger lot, as is likely to be the case here, but for most folks, we're talking emotional appeal, not rational thought process. In other words, like many people looking for a mate, they see the gorgeous sculpted toned and tanned member of the opposite sex, and ignore the abusive personality behind the beautiful exterior. I'm not certain I've ever met someone who wanted to live in such a development, but they sure sell like hotcakes! Add travertine and granite countertops and the fact that it's new to the 2800 square footer, and you've got people willing to pay $800k for the first property as opposed to maybe $550k for the second. In their mind, the first property might be a "flipper's investment" while the second is "the keeper" that they are going to make improvements on for the rest of their lives, but economically, we vote with our dollars. If you opened your wallet for the house where you don't have any land, guess what? You're voting for developers to keep building them. You know something else? That brand new cheek-by-jowl development isn't going to be new forever. Considering market returns, that older $550,000 3 bedroom on half an acre is a better investment, even if it needs updating. Curb appeal and house bling and "ooh, it's new!" are the best ways I know of to sucker buyers into paying too much money.

The developer knows this at least as well as your average real estate agent. The developer has all of this researched down the the last centimeter of the lot lines. They are not in business to build wonderful homes that people are going to be happy in forever; they are in business to make money, and the blinged-out houses on the smallest possible lots bring in the most money for that developer. The fact that you're the very first person to live in the house is a further attraction to the kind of person who buys new cars, which is to say, most of the population, and it's worth serious money to that developer's bottom line, although it will cost you money in the long term.

Nor is the developer alone in this endeavor. They wouldn't make the most money from homes like that if people didn't pay the most money for homes like that. You want the real culprits in this scenario, look around you in any large crowd. It's all to easy to blame the developer, but the desires of the average home buyer and the regulatory environment both played huge factors in getting the state of new housing to where it is now.

There are ways to potentially fix the problem. They start at real consumer education, easing environmental restrictions and the permit process, particularly for high density housing, which may not be desirable, but when your front yard is the size of a postage stamp and most people wouldn't use it anyway, doesn't it make more sense to put all the community lawns together in one park that someone can actually get some use out of? Say, a place for kids and dogs to play? People say they hate condos, but condos townhomes and row homes are all that's available if the price of land stays where it is. Environmental regulation and slow growth policies are fundamentally at odds with affordable housing in high demand areas. I'm not saying throw them out entirely in the name of putting up cardboard shacks, but I am saying that we can certainly choose a point friendlier to low cost housing than we have chosen. I can only conclude that society must value the environmental status quo more than it values lowering the cost of housing, in which case the status quo is the correct choice.

None of this has any measurable political support. Everybody is for lowering the cost of housing, at least for the poor, but put it on the ballot against loosening environmental protections and it loses. There are a certain number of addition reasons why this happens, of course. Multimillionaire developers are not politically popular, but Least Tern environment is. Rarely do people stop to consider that by constricting the supply of housing, you unavoidably increase the price. Nor can you do anything by governmental fiat to fix the problem that doesn't price even more people out of the market. Demand is a given - it not directly controllable. There are 300 million Americans and they all want housing they can afford. Even kicking out the estimated 11 million or so who are in the country illegally wouldn't do a whole lot to really solve this problem. The only way to treat the issue is by increasing the supply, which does seem to include being nicer to those multimillionaire developers, but in this case the issue is more affordable housing for everyone, and being nicer to the developers means that you get more housing units, which drops the price of housing from whatever it would have been without being nice to the developers. Because any time someone else enters the United States, whether legally, illegally, or simply by being born, you create a housing need. Every time there is a new American without another place for that American to live, we create somebody without a home. We price somebody out of the market. We now have an American who cannot afford to buy a home.

Now how to handle this issue until such time, as any, as society changes its mind and decides to make housing more affordable? Your best bet is to find a good buyer's agent to defeat the problem on a retail level, that is, for yourself, because wholesale solutions are not likely until people get rational about solving society's problems. You can't make people build the kind of housing you say you want. But you can make informed choices between what's out there now, and a good buyer's agent will look as far out as you tell them to.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 6, 2008 7:00 AM.

Why Do Lenders Sell Mortgages? was the previous entry in this blog.

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