Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Go Big, Buy a Home

Remember the housing downturn of 2008? In the immediate aftermath of the last recession, when foreclosures were as common as crabgrass, buying a house with more than 3,000 square feet seemed foolish, if not greedy.

“Back then, large houses were frowned upon in some circles,” says Fred Meyer, a property appraiser and the president of a long-established realty firm located on Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But much has changed since 2008, according to Rose Quint, an economist for the National Association of Home Builders (nahb.org). To many, the recession-era notion of voluntary simplicity now seems somewhat quaint.

“Over time, the cultural trend for more desired square footage for single-family homes has increased among consumers,” says Quint, citing surveys conducted by the association.

The latest available U.S. Census Bureau statistics on newly built housing -- for 2016 -- underscore this cultural trend. Of the 738,000 single-family homes completed that year, well over half had four or more bedrooms, and nearly that many had three or more bathrooms.

“There’s something beguiling about big houses,” says James W. Hughes, a housing analyst and dean emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Of course, with rising land costs and soaring housing prices in popular neighborhoods, the gap between the desire for large housing and its affordability has steadily widened. Entry level buyers are now particularly hard-hit, and need to allocate their dollars wisely when considering which home features make sense for them.

“Think through your realistic needs. For example, if you work from home a lot, you might truly need a spare bedroom for a dedicated home-based office. But a formal dining room could be superfluous,” Hughes says.

Here are a few other pointers for buyers:

-- Search for the strongest neighborhood you can afford.

Whenever there’s a downturn in housing, the rebound comes most quickly in what Hughes calls “winners’ circles.” These are communities that retain their desirability during all phases of the economic cycle.

Those seeking a large house might get an excellent deal in a distressed area. But as Hughes says, that could be a perilous choice going forward.

His advice: It’s better to compromise and buy a smaller house in a stronger neighborhood than the reverse.

-- Choose an area with a reasonable commute.

In the past, many people bullish on large houses willingly accepted a lengthy commute in exchange for more square footage and a sizable yard.

But given ongoing uncertainties about energy prices, more buyers are now wary about accepting a long commute. That means the future resale potential of a home you buy now in a distant suburb or exurban area could be uncertain.

“Buying a house that requires its owners to make a one-hour-plus commute is a significant financial risk, particularly if you have to sell within five to 10 years,” Hughes says.

-- Seek a community with the best possible public schools.

It’s widely believed that strong neighborhood schools help keep property values high over time, and Hughes supports this view. How can you check out school quality? Real estate agents typically decline to characterize schools in terms of quality, for fear their remarks might be taken as discriminatory. Yet your agent should be willing to provide you a large volume of statistics that compare schools on test scores, high school graduation rates and other quantitative factors. Then, too, you can make an appointment to visit schools to see how they fare on the intangibles -- like the warmth and receptivity of teachers and staff.

In addition, for a fee you can buy detailed online reports on local schools through a service such as SchoolMatch (schoolmatch.com), a research organization focused on comparative school quality.

-- Screen property for the needs of your particular household.

Meyer says many parents of school-age children want a house with a large master suite that’s segregated from the cluster of bedrooms where their kids reside. This is especially likely if their offspring are teenagers who thrive on loud music and games.

Empty-nest parents can also be candidates for large housing, which is particularly likely if one or both spouses run a home-based business.

“It’s common nowadays for homebuyers to ask for ‘his and her’ home offices. They want a big house with a ‘library’ or two that’s separated from the main living areas of the property. This requires lots of space,” Meyer says.

Surprisingly, he says there’s another group of buyers who also aspire to a large home purchase: well-to-do grandparents.

“It’s not uncommon for affluent buyers over age 65 to seek a big house with multiple bedrooms where they can put up lots of visiting family members,” Meyer says.

Of course, relatively few buyers can now afford to own and maintain a spacious place in a highly desirable neighborhood. But if you are the lucky exception -- and plan to soon enlarge your family or live in your next property for an indefinite period -- Meyer recommends you buy now for your future needs.

“Try to reach for a house where you can stay for some time. Due to transaction costs, it’s very expensive to keep moving every few years,” Meyer says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)