House lots shrinking to meet demand

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2012 - 9:28 PM

New developments' shift to less acreage reflects changing lifestyles.

Realtor David May can see the recent evolution of home construction in the neighborhoods where he sells.

At the Stonemill Farms development in Woodbury, for example, many of the lots developed before the housing bubble burst were toward the 100-foot end of the lot frontage spectrum. Lots being built on now are closer to the smaller end, at 65 feet.

It's not so much that economic anxieties have buyers thinking smaller, May said, as that people have become more pragmatic about how to invest their housing dollars.

"They say, 'Why do I need to spend my weekend cutting grass? The reality is, when I can do it in half-hour or hour I can do what I really want to do,'" said May, of Fieldstone Family Homes.

In developing cities across the region, smaller lots are becoming more common, say Realtors, developers and city officials. That's because less land can provide better value for buyers, and smaller lots present a different kind of lifestyle than the sweeping suburban lawns of the past decade. The preference for less is showing up not only among empty nesters looking to simplify, but also among younger buyers who predict that the needs of a big yard will clash with the demands of busy families, experts said.

The change isn't upsetting city planning; developers simply are moving within the guidelines cities already have set.

Plymouth Community Development Director Steve Juetten said a little more density is a positive. In addition to offering more options in the city for a wider range of buyers, more homes are good for business, he said.

"Growth is a positive because it supports the businesses that are here," he said. "If you drive around, you're not seeing empty spaces in retail areas ... the goal is to have a good mix of all of it so they feed off each other."

More density also costs cities less, May noted, because it requires less infrastructure, that is, streets, sewer, water.

The trend is evident elsewhere in the metro area:

• Ryland's Dan Patch Trail Community in Savage, where a neighborhood of mostly 60-foot-wide lots is surrounded by sweeping views of wetlands, open space and parkland. Houses there are marketed around $250,000 to first-time buyers and empty nesters who previously might have bought townhouses.

• Pulte's Elm Creek Highlands in Plymouth, where homes are being built on 60- to 65-foot-wide lots. Many are backed up by woods, and residents have close access to the Northwest Greenway trail. They are marketed in the mid-$400,000 range to move-up buyers with families.

In each case, developers said, the trend reflects a change from a previous standard.

Ryland's President Mike DeVoe said the trend is a result of the housing meltdown. From the perspective of an entry-level buyer, it now makes sense to shop for modest detached homes as those prices dropped into the region normally seen only for townhouses. From the builder's perspective, however, nothing was getting less expensive but the land.

"With the market conditions, we couldn't make townhouse developments make sense anymore," he said. "So we looked for a different way to service that buyer."

But even at the higher end, many buyers are opting out of the suburban estate, said Marv McDaris, Pulte Group's Minnesota Division president. Holding up Elm Creek Highlands as an example, he said that, in the end, some people are willing to give up land in exchange for a desirable Plymouth address, access to Wayzata schools and shared outdoor amenities.

"With [the] downturn, we tried to understand how people live and how can we set ourselves apart from resale," he said. "I hear from buyers that more kids play in the front yards or street or driveway. The back yard is not as sought-after as it has been in the past."

It's not a universal trend, however. In Blaine, where new housing starts remained strong through most of the recession, single-family lots have remained large, to accommodate continuing strong demand for three-car garages, according to Blaine Community Development Director Bryan Schafer.

Elsewhere, the change may mark a shift in buyers' values, said June Wiener, president of the Minnesota Association of Realtors. Empty nesters sometimes have cabins to maintain, or they just want to spend their free time anywhere other than the mower. The same goes for families.

"Younger and younger buyers are saying to me, 'I don't want the big lot. I don't have time to take care of it,'" she said. "Young couples, when I first started in this business, were looking for a big yard for their kids to play and lots of space. ... If it's a couple, both are usually working long hours, so they're tired, and they don't have the time they used to, to spend on doing those maintenance items. I think the kids are really scheduled, and they're running off with the kids to the next whatever, so they don't have time in that respect either."

May agreed.

"People have got all kinds of things going on in their family life, and as a result the back yard doesn't get nearly as much use as it did 10, 20, 25 years ago," he said.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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