The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Look Beyond Detached Houses

People shopping for new, more spacious single-family houses where they can hunker down during the pandemic may be overlooking places that meet most, if not all, of their needs: town houses and condominiums.

The newest breed of town houses and apartments check all the boxes for riding out the virus -- and beyond. Indeed, many seem to be designed especially for the pandemic, but often at a more affordable price and in a more walkable location than detached houses in the far-out suburbs.

Yes, these attached homes normally are somewhat smaller than their stand-alone brethren. But today’s plans often include dedicated home offices, separate spaces for home-schooling, and dual master suites -- handy for extended families, or if someone must be quarantined.

Some have kitchens with expansive islands for cooking, crafting and gathering, and walk-in pantries for stocking up on essentials. Some even come with finished basements for whatever the need may be -- lounges, bonus rooms or play areas for the little ones -- and private, fenced-in backyards for safe outdoor activities.

According to the Census Bureau, town house construction has slowed a bit as demand has shifted to more suburban and exurban locations, where land tends to be less expensive. Over the last four quarters, single-family attached dwellings accounted for 106,000 construction starts, which is 6% fewer than in the previous four quarters.

Still, Robert Dietz, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders, believes the town house share of the market will trend higher in the coming years. Given the growing number of buyers looking for medium-density neighborhoods, such as urban villages with walkable environments and other amenities (as opposed to high-density spots that depend on mass transit and elevators), Dietz says the “long-run prospects” for town houses “remain positive.”

Attached single-family houses have long been touted as great alternatives to more expensive detached dwellings, especially for first-time buyers moving out of apartments or their parents’ basements. But now, in their effort to compete with detached houses in the age of COVID-19, some town house builders are designing bigger and better than ever.

They may or may not be any less expensive, but they tend to be closer to city centers than detached homes in the way-out-there suburban fringes. Cases in point: Two projects by Chicago-based Lexington Homes -- one in Arlington Heights in the city’s northwestern suburbs and the other in Warrenville, almost due west. Both have all the functionality and style of detached houses -- and at different price points.

They offer “open concept” floor plans, spacious kitchens with large islands, and master baths with seats in the showers and separate water closets. They have finished lower levels, unfinished basements, private balconies and small, yet functional, backyards. They also have multiple home office/workspaces, which today’s buyers say they want. And some layouts offer dens and computer niches at the top of the staircase landing, supplying families the options they may need for remote learning and working.

Neither project is considered close-in, one longtime local told me, but Arlington Heights is still in Cook County, same as Chicago. The Lexington Heritage property there features two collections: one with two- and three-bedroom, two-story models, each with two-car garages and up to 3 1/2 baths. This grouping ranges in size from 1,650 to 1,950 square feet. Homes in the other series contain three-level units with two or three bedrooms, attached garages and up to 3 1/2 baths, and run from 1,813 to 1,976 square feet.

Though still in the nine-county Chicago metro region, Warrenville is “pretty far out” at the western end of DuPage County, my resident geographer said. But the units there measure almost 2,000 square feet, with either front- or rear-loading garages. And starting at just under $300,000, prices there are much less than in Arlington Heights, where the starting price is $438,000. (As a reference, the median resale price in Chicagoland in July was $277,000.)

No longer a basic two-bedroom, two-bath cube, some condominiums are evolving, too. Some now even offer multiple floors.

Let’s look again at Chicago, where the CA6 West Loop project by the Belgravia Group offers four-bedroom duplexes. These two-story units feature dedicated office spaces, flex rooms to accommodate multiple uses, and outsized 700-square-foot private terraces that can hold a trampoline or an inflatable pool.

These units range in size from 3,100 to 3,157 square feet with four bedrooms, 3.5 baths and a backyard. But starting at $1.65 million, the prices here are not for the typical buyer.

Prices are somewhat more modest at 7180 Optima Kierland, a new 12-story tower in Scottsdale, Arizona: The tower’s one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, as well as penthouses, start at $500,000 and run up to more than $2 million. The median resale price in the Phoenix area was $315,000 in July.

Also starting at $500,000, the units at the Venue condo in Old Town Alexandria across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., range up to 2,300 square feet with one to three bedrooms, plus a den.