About five years ago I watched Toll Brothers throw up 5000-7000 sq ft houses on 1/2 acre plots of land in a development called “The Hunt at Brandywine” now known as “Brandywine Hunt”. I worked nearby and I was amazed at how little time it took to build these behemoths. From foundation pour to final landscaping was less than 3 months if memory serves, and watching these homes rise out of the Delaware dust I realized that the McMansion is the antithesis of everything I believe in.
The homes are mass-produced with little craftsmanship, following a mix-and-match modular design where people choose from a limited set of elements, creating a neighborhood where the homes look uncannily similar – like children from an incestuous mating. Because the homes are on small plots of land there is little privacy – especially when large windows overlook your neighbor’s home just a few yards away. There are no mature trees; the few that stood on the site when it was a racetrack and parking lot were scraped off. The lawns look sterile, and the common space where a large lake sits has “NO TRESSPASSING” signs staked every 100 feet or so.
But worst of all was the fact that the houses were ostentatious. Their facades meant to tell the world that the owner was wealthy even though in 2005 anyone with a pulse could get an interest only jumbo mortgage. No one needs to live in a 7,000 square foot house, but choosing to live in one meant that the owner wanted to make a statement to the world that she had money to waste in purchasing, maintaining and heating 7,000 square feet of the 22,000 square feet of rocky Delaware soil.
7,000 square feet of living space. A brown bear in the Rocky Mountains requires a home range of 9,673,804,800 square feet (347 square miles). We are not brown bears of course, but how big of a house do we need? The average American home size in 1950 was 1,000 square feet. The average American family was bigger back then, yet they somehow managed to pack everyone in 1,400 less space than the average US home in 2004.
My wife and I are fans of the Not So Big House movement documented by writer Sarah Susanka in a book with the same title. A Not So Big house is the synthesis of comfort, beauty and efficiency. Rooms are meant to be used – not to impress – and are designed accordingly. The form follows function model isn’t new and has its roots in the Arts and Crafts and Prairie School movements of a century ago reaching their pinnacle in the design of Frank Lloyd Wright. Ultimately we desire a bubble of a comfortable cozy space surrounded by well made floors, walls, ceilings and windows.
The McMansion builds a brittle, empty shell around a large impersonal space. It costs less money for builders like Toll Brothers to build a 5,000 square foot house metal studs, dry wall and composite moldings than it does to build a 1,500 square foot home with brick, plaster, and wood moldings. Every angle or corner adds cost, so today’s developers minimize them building what is in essence a rectangular box that varies little across the country. McMansions in New Mexico are rectangular boxes with adobe motif and a gas fired kiva. McMansions in New England are rectangular boxes with brick facades and an electric fireplace. The essence of the McMansion is the same just as a Big Mac tastes the same in Moscow Russia as it does in Moscow Idaho. Over the past half-century builders have worked to convince us to believe that “bigger is better” because such thinking enhanced their bottom lines. The result is an overpriced, soulless middle-class ghetto – Brandywine Hunt.
The old cliche is that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. The troubled Brandywine Town Center (BTC) is next to the development. BTC is a sprawling mall in one of the best locations in Delaware that has failed to lease much of its commercial and retail space since it was built earlier in the decade. It sits at the end of a heavily trafficked 5 mile long corridor walled by numerous strip malls and one large indoor mall, Concord Mall ending at the Pennsylvania state line, offering tax free shopping to the southern suburbs of Phildelphia.
Yet at BTC furniture stores come and go and the place is half vacant. A small covered mall is empty. Anchor stores are Lowes, Target and a movie theater which pull in consumers yet somehow not enough to keep other stores in business. The store closest to the Hunt is Christmas Tree Shops – selling lowpriced unwanted goods from around the world. Across the street from the hunt are modestly priced condos and apartments whose residents once fought both BTC and Brandywine Hunt developments. In both cases the developers won these battles, but the empty commercial slots at BTC and the dehumanizing design of Brandywine Hunt prove that the outcome of these battles is less clear.
That hasn’t stopped some for pursuing the dream offered by Toll Brothers. The homes at “The Hunt” originally sold for $700k-$850k. Today, 4 years and a real estate meltdown later two of these homes are for sale for over a million dollars. Here’s one listing for $1.125 million. A quick search of public records netted this information:
As this record shows the home sold for $860k almost 4 years ago. The seller is asking for a 30% return on his/her investment. Will he or she get it?
Here’s Google map’s view of the area:
View Larger Map
Here’s a streetview within the development itself:
View Larger Map
Do these look like million dollar homes to you? What is the likelihood that the seller of the $1.125 million property will turn a profit on their 4 year “investment” – let alone receive an offer close to the asking price? Am I wrong in believing that the seller is… high?
The loans that financed The Hunt have disappeared. Banks are now requiring large down payments and refusing Jumbo loans. The current limit for the jumbo is $417,000 – roughly a third of the asking price of the homes in The Hunt. Middle class buyers cannot afford million dollar homes. This is a fact that people forgot during the housing boom, and one that the current sellers of the homes at the Hunt haven’t learned yet. This limits the pool of buyers for these homes to the upper class, and in Delaware the upper class does not want to live next to Target and a half-empty shopping mall.
The only way home owners in The Hunt are going to survive is by staying put. After 10 years of Obama-inflation they may be able to get more than they paid for their houses, but only because cashiers are Walmart will be making $150,000/year. Of course I could be wrong and the seller $1.125 million property will find a greater fool, but will that fool be able to finance the property?