While a new house probably wins the functionality contest hands down over most
older homes, the latter can put up a tough fight in other areas that make a house
One of these is aesthetics. A well-maintained older home can have every bit
as much "curb appeal" as a new home. There is nothing that
says American family as much as a stately 1930's colonial (remember Ozzie and
Harriet?) or a post-war Cape Cod. Even though the latter were put up by the
hundreds of thousands in assembly lines throughout the country, passing years
and the creativity of two to four generations of owners have rendered many of
them individual and charming.
Certainly, of course, not every home built then as now has graceful lines and
pleasing proportions and every so often a style catches on with builders that
just doesn't hold up well over the years. The 1950s and 1960s seemed to
have more than their share of such short-lived architectural abominations but
being sensitive we won't mention any by name. Then too, not every owner
makes improvements that actually improve and the years have seen many trends
such as aluminum siding, enclosed front porches and louvered windows that probably
did not win any beautification awards.
Then there are the neighborhoods. New subdivisions seem, in
the main, to be built by those from the scorched earth school. We have talked
earlier about builders'
tendency to take down every tree, pull the stumps, bulldoze indigenous grasses
and plants, and, where allowed, divert streams and cover or move wetlands in
order to build fast and cheap.
Maybe builders in earlier years did the same, but time has erased their folly.
Trees that were purchased from wholesalers for $5.00 each back then and looked
worth every penny have, if they survived, grown into lush canopies. Some are
so called "junk" trees and not of the quality of the trees that
were ripped out 40 years ago, but they still provide shade and a backdrop that
softens the landscape. They provide privacy, absorb noise and filter pollutants
from the air.
Owners have worked on their hands and knees or paid the money to hire someone
to do so to put in fences, arbors, and specimen plants. The result is entire
neighborhoods that have settled into the landscape as though they were always
But we do have to live inside the house. There the visual pleasures of older
homes can be a mixed bag. Many have been "improved" out of any charm
they might have originally had (no thanks to the inventor of plywood wall paneling)
and there are those pink, green, and avocado yellow kitchens and baths. (If
you don't believe there is such a color as avocado yellow I will send you a
sample tile from my about to be renovated master bath). The 1950s were noted
for knee wall planters in the entry, vast flagstone fireplaces and bright green
fiberglass patio roofs. The sixties ushered in hollow-core doors that delaminate
over time and bubble skylights. Of course there is nothing about the aesthetics
of a home that cannot be changed with imagination and money
But often the workmanship, even in what used to be called
"tract homes" is virtually unaffordable today. Solid panel interior
doors, red oak hardwood flooring, arched doorways, real plaster walls, all have
an aesthetic appeal that most new homes cannot replicate.
At the end, however, it is all in the eye of the beholder and there is a market
for every style, age, and color of home. I'll bet somewhere there is someone
who at this very moment is searching for avocado yellow tiles. Well, maybe not.
In any case, we aren't going to give this round to either side although
the older home may have an edge.
Price is another area where older homes can compete successfully
with new homes most places.
Where land is scarce it is nearly impossible to find a new home in an area's
lower price range. This is simple economics. If a builder has to spend $200,000
for a building lot he is going to have to put up a home that will sell for at
least $600,000 - some will say even more. This means putting up a large
home with a lot of amenities which might drive the sale price even higher. However,
in areas where land is plentiful, it is common to see homes in established neighborhoods
priced close to or the same as those in new subdivisions. Now, here we come
full circle, back to function and aesthetics.
For example, in a small southern town with ample available
land, house prices start in the $80s and tops out in the low $200's unless the
house has water views or frontage. A solid home in a nice established neighborhood
generally sells for $145,000 to $180,000. New spec houses are currently selling
for $150,000 to $190,000. Percentage wise, this is very little difference. The
houses are about the same size - 2,200 sq. ft. People who are absolutely determined
to buy new will not look beyond the price tag, but others will have to make
a decision based on other factors.
The new house is probably going to win the function contest - new wiring, lots
of storage, all of the things we talked about earlier. Except, new houses
in this price range have a Great Room or they have a Great Room and dining room.
They do not have a living room, family room and dining room. Older homes usually
have all three. The older homes are generally on lots of 15,000 sq. ft and up;
in this particular town new subdivisions are wall-to-wall house. Side yards
are only nine feet - a total of 18 feet between each of dozens of homes. The
lots themselves are less than 10,000 sq. ft and to save space the garage is
under the home but at ground level so every bag of groceries, every tired toddler,
has to be carried up 10 or 12 steps into the living area. So maybe the older
home at the same price has some functionality to brag about.
Then there are aesthetics Our new subdivision is a 72-home plate of
cookies. All of the houses are identical with only the exterior finishes
- siding, colors, front door design -varying from one to the other. The whole
area reminds one of the 1950s joke about residents checking the address to be
sure they had come home to the right house.
And the lots; every tree gone, every hill leveled. No shade, no privacy (especially
with houses so close together) for at least 10 years.
So, more and more it seems that a home buyer has to weigh more than one factor
in the new versus old decision. Of course any decision in life is always a matter
of trade-offs and there are two more to talk about - maintenance and energy
efficiency - which brings us back to the subject of green and eventually
to a look at retrofitting older homes for the energy conscious - for the
moment at least - life style.