Of the big, wide, wonderful world of real estate, lately I’ve been watching one key element, a specific spectrum on which consumer preferences seem to be crawling out to the extremes. The bell curve seems to be flipping upside down when it comes to housing customization.
For instance, last week, I read a story about a filmmaker who recently closed escrow on an $8 million house — with plans to tear it down and build a $20 million home in its place!
I’m guessing that the rationale is that the lot is that desirable, although that seems like a big old stretch in logic when you draw it to its logical conclusion that no other lot in America priced at below $8 million would do.
Granted, the house currently onsite is what one of my favorite clients would call "ongepotchket"; Yiddish for gaudy or excessive in decoration.
The look and feel of the decor is what I call Liberace-esque: gold fixtures, hundreds of pounds of burgundy damask silk strung up at every window. Not so cute, and certainly not so 21st century. But this teardown of a house is also brand spanking new!
It’s his money. And I respect his right to spend it how he would like. But is it wise, or even reasonable? The common-sense, increasingly frugal cultural critic in me cannot help but question this decision-making.
Really? Are you truly that sensitive and in need of a house built precisely to the contours of your personal wants and needs that, on a $30 million budget, you simply could not find any other house anywhere, or remodel that one if you needed to change the floor plan or add square feet?
And, forgive me for being lowbrow — you couldn’t just redecorate? Get outta here.
It makes me wonder: How much square footage does a person’s body really need to inhabit to be happy — even live really, really well?
I wonder this often when looking at homes like Candy Spelling’s, which was recently placed on the market for $150 million. Is whoever eventually buys it making the statement that he/she absolutely could not have been happy in, say, a $5 million house?
Is the luxury of the lifestyle you can live in a $150 million home in fact 30 times greater than the life you could live in a $5 million mansion in its own right?
I recently read an adage to the effect that once we are living above the level of basic subsistence, our happiness is determined more by our attitude than by our possessions.
These extreme examples of personal real estate standards make me wonder if some of us aren’t a bit too sensitive for our own good. If you can’t be happy in a $5 million house, or an $8 million house, will you ever?
But I also see the other end of the spectrum, which, of course, is more relatable to most of us. IKEA, the Swedish design emporium chain that offers flat-packed/self-assembly home furnishings known for their clean design aesthetic, also sells — you guessed it — flat-packed homes!
The BoKlok (Swedish for "live smart") homes have actually been manufactured, assembled and sold by IKEA in various European housing developments for nearly 15 years now.
While these homes are prefabricated, they are done so with IKEA’s usual mastery of nearly universally agreeable design and efficiency, which makes them able to be resold at very affordable pricing. A number of the BoKlok developments have sold out with lotteries and long waiting lists, due to their desirability and affordability.
I couldn’t find any news of BoKlok developments coming to the U.S., but I think there’s an increasing case for this sort of fabulous prefab ingenuity stateside.
Increasingly, Americans en masse are clear that they don’t need uber-customized home spaces, or that much of the customization they do want and need can be easily created after-market.
The "New Frugality" powers this movement. So does the reverse urban flight, whereby so many Americans are moving back into urban job centers and seeking out smaller, more efficient, highly commutable homes like urban lofts.
Plus, non-custom homes are simply getting better and better. IKEA’s BoKlok homes, for example, have high ceilings, large windows for allowing natural light in, and are designed to sit on lots in a way that maximizes outdoor green space.
And even the urban lofts we see for sale across America are increasingly adopting a vintage industrial-style mixture of uncluttered design and charming, comfortable details that is more attractive, more livable, and just plain old more agreeable to more people than the non-custom tract-type homes of yesteryear, which were divisive, when it came down to aesthetics.
Maybe more Americans are creeping out to the non-custom end of the spectrum because developers have done enough trial and error to finally arrive at a design aesthetic that works for many.
But I also think Americans have lost so much in the last few years that we now realize we need much less than we once thought, and can truly appreciate the beauty of simple things like wood floors and subway tile, so long as the home is affordable, functional and well-located for their lifestyle.
For every $8 million house being torn down to build a custom home for a single individual, there are 1,000 big-money McMansions that are being converted into small-scale retirement homes, group homes or artist communities for the benefit of many. And that, I hope, is indicative of the new American way when it comes to housing.