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Continued: Hybrid housing holds appeal

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 21, 2011 - 9:44 AM

Mary Myss never has to paint her Chaska home, mow the lawn or shovel her driveway. That's because her walkout rambler is in Pioneer Point, a subdivision of single-family homes that are maintained by a homeowners' association.

"It's one of the best kept secrets," said Myss. "It's amazing that more people don't know about it."

Before moving to Chaska, Myss and her children lived in a big house in Wayzata with an equally big yard that she was fine with tending -- until she wasn't.

"What put me over the edge was coming home from work in the winter after a snowfall and I couldn't get up the driveway," she said.

At Pioneer Point, she still has her own entrance, her own yard and her own deck, but none of the work to care for them. Her $220 monthly association fee covers lawn care, snowplowing, exterior repairs, maintaining the common grounds and even blacktopping the driveway.

"When I'm home, I'm sitting on my deck barbecuing and playing with my grandchildren rather than dealing with maintenance issues," she said.

This type of housing -- called manor homes, villas, cottage homes or detached townhouses -- is tailored to people who want the privacy of a traditional single-family home with the convenience of a condo. And although it accounts for only a tiny slice of the real estate pie, builders and developers are cautiously optimistic that this hybrid style of house will grow in popularity, partly because it's designed for a growing population: retiring baby boomers.

"Many of my buyers are people who just want to lock the door and leave to go to the lake or to a second home in the winter," said builder Forrest Harstad, whose 69-lot development, the Fields of St. Michael, offers homes ranging from $200,000 to $400,000.

Care and control

In the past, Harstad has built twinhomes and townhouses, but he said customers were looking for "homes that don't share a common wall but everything was taken care of."

K. Hovnanian Homes, a national builder based in New Jersey, is aiming at the 55-plus crowd with its Four Seasons at Rush Creek in Maple Grove. Homes range from $260,000 to $400,000. Owners pay $260 a month for the tennis courts, clubhouse, pool and fitness center, as well as lawn care. According to John Nelson, Minnesota division director of marketing, many of the buyers are snowbirds.

"We've done more than 100 of this type of housing developments across the country," said Nelson. "But it's more common in the Southern market and East Coast, where there are more retirees."

Here in Minnesota, empty nesters and retirees aren't the only ones attracted to the low-maintenance housing. Some builders have discovered that busy young professionals and families with young children are interested, too.

"We started with ramblers for empty-nesters, but now we're doing two-stories for families with young kids who like that kind of atmosphere," said Tom Budzynski, owner of TJB Homes, whose St. Andrews Village in Blaine offers a community pool and a park. About half of the 60 homes, which start at $300,000, have been sold.

Budzynski said the "no snow, no mow" amenity is giving his development a competitive edge in a tough housing market. "We have a model in a nearby development that's not association-maintained," he said. "We're getting a lot more action at St. Andrews."

The upscale Crosby Cove, a collection of $2 million-plus mansions on a channel leading to Lake Minnetonka, has attracted a mix of young families and seniors, said Jennifer Cramer-Miller, vice president of L. Cramer Builders, who also owns a home there.

"There's so many inherent benefits, such as noise reduction, and it also unifies the neighborhood because they maintain it together," she said.

In most developments, the homeowners' association hires a management company to take care of services or contract the work out themselves. One of the perks is that all the mowing, trimming and weed-whacking is done on the same day, leaving the rest of the week quiet. Monthly fees range from $95 for basic mowing and snowplowing to $260 depending on the range of services and neighborhood amenities such as community pools, docks and parks.

But not everyone wants to live in a managed subdivision. Associations have guidelines and often reserve the right to approve landscaping, exterior modifications, even paint colors. Some subdivisions don't allow fences or swing sets and gardens are scrutinized in case they impede lawn mowing. "There are rules in order to maintain everyone's home values and make it a cohesive neighborhood," said Steve Meillier, a real estate agent selling villa homes in St. Johns Village at Dancing Waters in Woodbury for local builder McDonald Construction.

Myss has no issues with the restrictions. "I do have to get permission to do anything," she said. "I can't paint my house purple, but I view that as an advantage. And everyone's lawn looks fantastic."

Mark Gergen, president of Miles Development in Bloomington, said his company recognizes that some buyers might feel that associations pose too many restrictions. At their 28-lot project Rosewood of Northfield, residents can put in a garden or put up a fence if they wish.

"Our goal was to create the best of both worlds -- bigger lots than a townhouse that allow for a three-car garage," he said. "Owners get lawn care and snow removal, but they don't have anyone telling them they can't put a tomato in a pot."

Going slow

Despite the growing interest in association-maintained single-family homes, builders are proceeding with caution.

"We'll watch how the market develops," said Bjorn Freudenthal, vice president of sales and marketing for College City Design/Build. "Right now we're focusing on selling the homes in Liberty Park," a 22-home maintained development in Northfield, Minn.

And Pulte Homes, which built Myss' home in Chaska, is targeting a different group of buyers. The company is offering 177 home sites in five new Twin Cities projects this summer. None is association-maintained.

"We're getting back to fundamentals," said Marv McDaris, Pulte division president. "We feel location, schools and communities are driving the housing demand. Our clients have said they'd rather use their purchasing power to buy a good location and nicer home features vs. having their lawn maintained."

But for Jim and Holly McGill, who own a walkout rambler in the Fields of St. Michael, their monthly fee of $95 is money well spent.

"We enjoy sitting on the deck every Tuesday and watching someone else cut the grass," said Jim. "When we run Up North during the winter and come home, we know we can drive right in the garage," he said. "It feels really good."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619

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