“The year 2020 was filled with challenges and full of surprises,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “One astonishing, development was the hot housing market as consumers eyed record-low mortgage rates and reconsidered what a home should be in a new economy with flexible work-from-home schedules.”
Our Homes: Past, Present & Future
Our homes are supposed to be our castles. There have been times when and places where they actually resembled one. They have also looked like fairytale cottages, gingerbread houses, Bavarian hunting lodges, and piles of kids’ alphabet blocks. In addition to the standard wood frame construction, homes have sometimes been made of steel, logs, dirt, concrete, or bales of hay. Home styles are a reflection of changing tastes and growing technology but are also a case of form following function and sometimes the result of larger events that touch all aspects of our lives.
Drive through any community, urban or rural, and unless it is a very new one, it is easy to see how houses have evolved over the years, changing in style, size, and relationship to neighboring houses and to the land.
One of the most visible ways homes have changed over the years is their size. There is, in any era, a wide range depending on the homeowner’s wealth and often on the degree to which he wanted to flaunt it. But size ranges did ebb and flow. During the colonial period, the largest homes were probably smaller than the McMansions of today just as today’s starter homes are larger than the 600 to 800 square foot size of the average family home at the turn of 20th Century.
Houses had been downsized around that time to compensate for the increased expense of plumbing, heating, and other new technological improvements. The late researcher Moya K. Mason also attributes the shrinkage to less need to produce Families no longer make and store home-canned fruit and vegetables, dowry linens, and supplies for making the family’s clothes and bedding. People were no longer producers, but consumers.
Even as families were shrinking, by the 1950s, houses had grown to just under 1,000 square feet (sf), then to about 2,300 sf at the beginning of the current century and to around. 2,600 sf during the Great Recession. Builders are driven to build bigger in bad times to increase profits as so many building costs are fixed.
In addition to changes in size, climate has also been a factor in home styles. Before the advent of central heat, living, areas clustered around the fireplace or woodstove. Homes built in the desert or subtropics pre-air conditioning had thicker walls (adobe, tabbi, or rammed earth construction), higher ceilings, and windows arranged! bring in cooling breezes. A front porch or veranda was a summer necessity.
Enter the Automobile
Without a doubt, the one factor that has influenced how and where we live more than any other is the automobile. It pulled people out of the cities and into the suburbs where they could occupy single family detached structures rather than row houses or apartment buildings. Older homes outside the city, built for a carless era, didn’t need a garage or even a driveway, so they could sprawl over much of the lot. The need for a garage or parking space meant better utilization of the land, leading to more two-story homes. In fact, if you could park a car in the house, so much the better, and thus split level and multilevel houses were born.
Of course, being tucked away in suburbia eventually meant having only a single car would not do. The two or three car garage was soon factored into home designs.
Form and Function
Homes have evolved on the inside as well. The sleeping porch is gone, the veranda has moved around back and become a patio or deck. Prior to World War I, homes tended to have both public and private spaces. A larger home might have both a family living room and a formal parlor, fancier and kept closed off and pristine in case of visitors. A striking feature in many of the gilded age “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island are the sweeping entry halls, huge dining rooms and ballrooms, and the nearly parsimonious upper halls and bedrooms.
Prior to the mid-1960s, kitchens tended to be small, isolated, and intended for only the cook. Eat-in-kitchens were a sought-after amenity (EIK was a common term in real estate ads), although it might only be an eating nook shoehorned into a corner.
It isn’t dear whether it was the gourmet magazine industry or Julia Child who brought more cooks into the kitchen, but along with them came cabinets full of equipment and exotic ingredients. There was also a growing desire to show off new cooking skills not only by entertaining more, but by welcoming guests into the kitchen to watch it all happen.
As kitchens grew larger they were opened up into the rest of the house, with more windows, appliances, countertops, and cabinets. Sometimes they were as much for show as utility. The formal dining and living rooms gave way to a great room where the whole family could gather, cook, eat, and pursue hobbies and homework.
But, while floor plans were opening up, technology was encouraging less personal contact. Mason says, “We’ve gone from having no bedrooms [in the 19th Century] to having many. The middle- class bedroom has become an ever more private place, with its own television, bathroom, and, even, fireplace. The master suite has become a self-contained apartment; some even have small fridges and coffee machines. Since the 1960s, the number of larger homes has increased, while the average number of household residents has shrunk quite dramatically.
Relatively speaking, the bathroom has not been an indoor feature for all that long. From a tiny and functional single bath in the 1920s and 30s, often located simply where it was cheapest to bring in the plumbing, many homes now feature more bathrooms than occupants and some are major showpieces. Even newly built starter homes feature luxurious master baths.
One reason the Great Recession was so devastating for homeowners was their lack of equity. Homeowners with loan to value (LTV) ratios of 90% or more didn’t have a lot of maneuvering room to sell or refinance their homes or modify mortgages when home prices started to fall. The current recession will probably have better outcomes. Homeowner equity has increased by an average of $106,100 since 2010, $9,300 in 2019 alone.
Further, price declines will be far less (1.5%) than those experienced during the Great Recession, when the national CoreLogic Home Price Index fell 33%, peak-to-trough. CoreLogic Equity Report
Form Also Follows History
We said earlier that large events have sometimes shaped the houses we live in. One example was World War II when life was interrupted for more than four years. When it was finally over and the troops came home ready to start households and families they found they had no place to live. Residential construction, both materials and manpower, had gone to war as well, and the country had a huge housing shortage. Builders responded by throwing up houses as quickly and cheaply as they could—small ranches on slabs, bungalows and capes. The same floor plans were used over and over, and cookie cutter exteriors led to tales of people bursting into neighbors’ homes by mistake.
These postwar homes typically had two or three bedrooms and one bath. Sometimes they were built to allow future expansion, usually by raising or adding a dormer to put more bedrooms, and sometimes another bath; on a second floor.
The energy crisis of the late 1970s also drove major changes. Although it passed quickly, it blended into a general green theme in housing. Home designs were altered to boost energy efficiency in the home’s shell, systems, and appliances. Designers and architects paid greater heed to passive technology and the health and safety of the home.
The New Normal
Now we are in the midst of another major event and the consensus has been swift that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring another housing revolution.
Bird don’t understand the concept of glass and too frequently try to fly right through it. An estimated 1 billion birds per year fail to survive the encounter. Now Howard Country, Maryland has joined New York City and San Francisco in passing a bird – safe building mandate. Buildings from one to three stories tall account for 44% of all bird fatalities.
In NY, the expansion of its Jacob Javits Center featured glass with a pattern of dots that both altered birds and increased energy efficiency. Its green (as in foliage) roof attracts foraging and nesting birds. Bird deaths dropped by 90% and energy consumption by 25% Amanda Loudin, Construction Dive
newed on a month by month basis, and may or may not still be in force as you read this.
In many cases loan officers and other staff are working from home as well, so some extra time is advised for various deadlines when purchase offers are composed. However, Ellie Mae, which tracks origination data, has not noted any exceptional increases in the time to close purchase loans in recent months:
The mortgage industry has been moving toward a hands-off model for a long time, and many companies were already set up to handle applications, pre-qualifications, underwriting, and approvals digitally. We will bet more will become so enabled in the future.
Home inspections have presented some unique problems; obviously, there is no way to conduct one off-site. Where shut-in orders are in effect, inspectors may not be considered essential workers and even absent that constraint, sellers can balk at allowing what can be an invasive visit. At the same time, the lack of an inspection can be grounds for a buyer to cancel a contract. Thus, the emphasis has been on minimizing the physical impact of inspections.
Where possible, agents are trying to schedule home, pest, lead paint, and any other inspections simultaneously and inspectors are pledging to observe the same healthsensical rules that pertain to buyers and agents.
Having the homebuyer tag along is pretty much a no-no and, while Zoom or FaceTime inspections might be possible, they probably get in the way of thoroughness and efficiency. Instead, inspectors are taking more pictures, even videos, and putting together slide shows for a post-inspection video conference with the buyer. This may even produce better results in terms of buyer understanding.
Inspectors have their own health concerns. While inspectors have almost always preferred themselves, HomeAdvisor says a few have insisted a home be vacant for 24 hours before the inspection.
Inspections often result in buyer demands for repairs which is necessitating other adjustments. Agents are building more time repairs to get done and some sellers are opting to make price adjustments or provide home warranty plans rather than allow workers in. Sellers might avoid any impact by hiring their own inspectors before listing the house and taking care of issues that are found at their convenience. The ultimate buyer may not accept those inspections, but it could minimize post – offer problems.
It’s not just a kid’s toy or a movie anymore. Michael Jantzen’s M-Velope Transformer House demonstrates how a house can rearrange itself to suit the needs of the occupant. The slated wooden panels slide on a steel frame to move the walls, doors, and roof into new positions. Inside the house, benches can be folded away to allow more room when needed.
At just 230 square feet, the house fits into a small space and includes elements of renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable materials in its construction. Ten such houses have been built in various locations and are used as holiday homes or relaxation residences. DenGarden
In the past, the closing used to be a crowded place with a buyer, a seller, an agent, an escrow agent or, more likely, two or more of each. Those events were notorious for chit-chat, passing around papers and pens, and requiring an hour or more of forced togetherness. Most states moved away from that model some time ago. Buyers and sellers meet separately to sing papers and notaries often collect signatures at the principal’s homes. Changes to rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Agency in 2015 required lenders to provide many documents to buyers days in advance which allowed plenty of time for questions and clarifications before the closing. Likewise, the advanced digitalization of deed records in the state has allowed title searches and recording to proceed as usual online.
There is no question that buying and selling during a pandemic has been a challenge for all involved. However, with ingenuity, flexibility and good humor, deals are getting done.