March 07, 2013

"Detroit" with Pine Trees?

Built in 2007. Size 4,496 square feet. Location: southern Colorado wildland-urban interface.
An article in The Atlantic speculates that the United States faces a glut of large-ish suburban homes that a younger generation does not want or cannot afford, due to their load of student loans.

As a consequence, people who believed the bullshit about their home being an "investment"  — as opposed to something to keep the rain off — might find themselves unable to liquid these assets when they need money late in life.

Meanwhile, I have been wondering when the "mountain home" craze would crash.

The craze been going on for generations. When I first saw our county seat, I think the number of real estate offices outnumbered both bars and churches. Marginal ranch land — that without irrigation or much surface water — was being subdivided heavily in the 1960s and 1970s. Construction work sustained many younger men who might otherwise have left to seek work elsewhere.

The buyers tended to be the young retirees — not the Baby Boomers, until recently, but the generations before.

Like my sixtyish parents moving to Whidbey Island, Washington — Dad totally into his new "career" as a boat-owning near-full-time recreational fisherman. 

Then something happens as this group ages. They get worried about being so far from the hospital. Or their adult kids begin a pressure campaign: "Mom, you can't live out there! What if something happens?"

Which brings us back to the real-estate market.

When M. and I purchased some land adjacent to ours that came on the market in 2011, the sellers' agent admitted that the market in the outlying areas was flatter than flat. I think that ours was the only purchase around here that year.

One house on our road was sold by a middle-aged couple to another similar—it took two years to sell. The sellers took a loss of at least ten percent and probably considered themselves lucky. (Investment? Hah.)

Another Gen X couple had to move because of a job transfer, leaving a pleasant house and garage on a small acreage with stables. It's still empty. There is a for-sale sign out front, but it is not listed on the agency's website, so the listing might have expired.

Another couple was in a similar position. Their house did not sell, so their twenty-something son lives there with a rotating cast of girlfriends, etc., as the house gradually looks seedier and seedier.

One neighbor recently died at 81. When his estate is settled, will his personal representative price the house to move, or will it just sit there too?

Finally, another neighbor, in her early 90s, has been on the receiving end of a "Mom, you have to move" campaign for years, and will probably be gone by the end of March.

The lights are going out.

So beyond the effects of the recent housing bust, I too wonder if having 35 acres and a spacious house like the one in the photo above is just losing its appeal.  It was not just a Baby Boomer thing — some of my neighbors were older than that, and some of them were younger.

Will we end up with countless 4,000–9,000 square foot houses sitting empty, sort of like Detroit with pine trees? Not necessarily a bad thing from an ecological viewpoint, but hard on local government that has gotten used to having the property-tax revenues.


a_botanist said...

Excellent Post! A few days ago I was studying Google Earth images of southern Colorado and marveling (not in a good way) at all the subdivided land west of Trinidad and again near San Luis. I wondered aloud who the developer thought would buy that land? Probably made sense when unleaded was below $2.00/gallon.

Chas S. Clifton said...

You are no doubt thinking of the Forbes (as in the magazine) Trinchera Ranch development -- and there was another one south of it, called Wild Horse Mesa, I think.

The Trinchera Ranch properties were sold through magazine ads in the 1970s and 1980s. "Own a piece of Colorado" — that kind of thing.

You will find people trying to sell them on eBay. ;)

Another similar was laid out in the 1960s in South Park NE of Hartsel — the gravel roads and the street signs (some of them) are still out there.

Darrell said...

A sister and her hubby built their home several miles outside Breckenridge 30 some years ago. At that time, the view up the valley to the continental divide showed nothing but trees and mountains. Nowadays there are an amazing (and frankly disgusting) number of trophy homes visible, as far as the eye can see. Most of them sit empty most of the time.