As the housing economy recovers, the availability of buildable land is one of the chief constraints facing builders. And in hot metropolitan areas, one of the places you can find that land is underneath an existing house. For builders who know the territory, existing houses for sale represent an opportunity. But if you want to take advantage of the opportunity, you've got to be ready to have a conversation with others in the community who like things the way they already are. This month, the Boston Globe Magazine looked at teardown politics in the Boston suburbs (see: "Can there be a teardown that everybody agrees on?" by Neil Swidey), while the New York Times took a similar look at the debate in the suburbs of Los Angeles ("In Los Angeles, Vintage Houses Are Giving Way to Bulldozers," by Adam Nagourney). East Coast or West Coast, the issues boil down to the same thing: home buyers want to live in a new house, but the neighbors don't want to have to look at it.
In L.A., reports the Times, "Developers, seeing the potential for high profits in this housing-starved region, have been bulldozing vintage homes in middle-class enclaves — Arts and Crafts cottages, Spanish Mission-style bungalows — to replace them with lot-filling, towering modern homes that typically sell for over $2 million."
"For builders, the teardown frenzy is a welcome sign of a recovering Los Angeles economy," the Times reports. "They see a market response to the demands of people who want bigger homes with the kinds of amenities that were not even imagined when houses were built 80 years ago — media rooms, sprawling bathrooms, elaborate kitchens." But some in the community see a down side — "potentially irreparable damage to handsome, historic and architecturally distinctive communities that they argue define Los Angeles as much as Hollywood or Venice."
In the Boston suburb of Newton, the issues are similar, according the Globe report. The paper profiles so-called "Teardown Queen" Cindy Stumpo, a Newton-based builder who has carved out a niche as a teardown artist, cruising the streets looking for overgrown lawns or similar tell-tale indications, looking for a chance to make an offer before a property hits the market. Stumpo's modus operandi is to get an existing house at the right price — one that lets her take down the existing house, build a much larger custom home for a new buyer, and make money on the transaction.
"In today's typical teardown scenario, a modest ranch, Cape, or split-level is razed and replaced with a house that is usually two to three times bigger, has two to three times the number of bathrooms, and sells for two to three times more," reports the Globe. "Builders have every incentive to max out the size of the new house. After all, total square footage and modern amenities like trophy kitchens, luxurious master suites, and yawning three-car garages serve to drive up the selling price. This approach often works out well for those particular builders and buyers. But critics argue that, cumulatively, all these teardowns have upended the character of entire neighborhoods, dwarfing abutting homes and draining a community of its moderately priced housing stock, not to mention many of its trees and much of its open space."
But Stumpo told the Globe, ""We're not tearing down historic, classic homes. We're tearing down postwar multilevels. There's no skin on these bones.''