The day hasn’t come yet, but it will, and we’ll ask ourselves how we got there. A plethora of houses, McMansions we like to jibe, will soon be available for purchase in neighborhoods of your dreams at prices of your dreams, and it won’t be a good thing, like you’re imagining. Akin to the decimation of many of Milwaukee’s turn of the century mansions along Wells and Wisconsin, these suburban dinosaurs will have to fight extinction, even if you’re one of the new owners.
Let’s consider the trends. Young, cool, and insanely wealthy (for what they do) like to live downtown. People with families prefer the suburbs. Baby Boomers on their third or fourth house enjoy 5 bedroom, 3 bath minimansions in the suburbs. That’s OK, since those Baby Boomers are making their top salaries, both working, and able to pay a maid or the kids to keep the house relatively clean, plus pay for any repairs needed. And the list goes on. Then there’s retirement... the list ends, and our problems start to emerge.
Suburban neighborhoods built on new money and big salaries are not prepared for fixed income and half-empty homes. That room or floor you never use? Mice. That garage attic you’ve never climbed? Rotten wood. It happens to houses all the time, but when you’re 70 and have 4000 square feet to deal with, it’s going to seem like it’s happening daily to you. That’s when you make a run for retirement living, like Florida or some other southern land where they won’t take taxes on the retirement you earned in your home state. Guess what, though? Now you have two homes to maintain. And you keep getting older.
Eventually, retirement living wins out, and the suburban home has to go. Sell it now, and you’re still getting top dollar, minus the correction from a few years back. Maybe you’re waiting for your house that was once valued at $500,000 to slowly climb back up. You keep paying taxes, utilities, and upkeep. Then your appliances need replacing because you might sell soon, and then the granite looks dated, and the paint from 2005 looks like it was painted a decade ago (because it was). But you wait a little longer, hoping the sale price will get you all the cash you’ll ever need in retirement.
But a few years from now, as you’re still waiting, a crazy thing starts to happen. Mid-sized houses closer to the big city are going up in value, but your giant dinosaur that now needs a new roof is holding steady. The condo you once thought about on the lakefront has gone up 50% in value, and inner-ring suburban homes are selling like hotcakes. Meanwhile, your arsenic-laden well needs to be redug. You spruce up your asphalt with a concrete drive because all the best homes in the area have gone concrete, but you’re seeing houses with concrete and quartz and stainless steel sleep on the market for months. You consider finally finishing the basement, even though your kids are gone and married and don’t need a rec room: you’re just looking for the answer.
But you wait some more because you have one heck of a house. Quality 80s, or 90s construction. All the home shows might be showing open concept, but you’ve got a Great Room, and it’s sunken. And your 90s carpeting looks perfect, but all the magazines are still showing hardwood floors. 80s and 90s houses don’t have hardwood hiding underneath, though you do have six kinds of flooring from upgrades every half-decade. Then there’s a tree too close to the basement and maybe a crack. You haven’t cleaned the 4th bathroom in two years. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th bedrooms are strictly for storage.
You see articles about Generation X and Y kids accepting the fact they will have less than their parents but also wanting to walk to work and restaurants, not to five cul de sacs. Urban bike paths open. Urban gardens are grown. People talk to their neighbors. People make an effort to avoid long commutes and trade-in their SUVs. People talk about footprints and how they should be small, but your house’s footprint is big and luxurious and many miles from the big city. The big, dirty, dangerous, reviving, thriving, vibrant city. Someone wants sidewalks, fire hydrants, safer intersections, a better school, and you feel good that you can still vote against all of that nonsense.
And then some of the houses stay on the market longer than a few months. And then the prices stop going up at all. And the new neighbors a few houses down don’t look like they belong in this neighborhood because they parked an RV and three rusty cars in the front lawn, and you know they bow hunt deer at night. But your house is still beautiful, especially the fireplace you use once a year and that started leaking in again. But fixing it will maintain market value. Then you check Zillow and see almost everyone’s price per square foot is higher than yours.
It’s further in the future now, and all public schools are closed. Most big box retailers have left your area because it was more efficient to concentrate on more populated areas and online. Most of your neighbors are relics, either waiting for the market recovery or choosing to whither away where their kids won’t visit, so some homes have been converted into senior living facilities. Many of the homes are being rented or just empty. The dwindling middle class can’t afford to live in such opulence. There are no hydrogen or electric fueling stations near your home. You haven’t been upgraded to full coverage Wi-Fi like the city. The garbage company you use has gone on strike and you’ve been told to handle the trash yourself. Going up and down the three flights of stairs to get anything done on a daily basis is making your knees hurt. You try a reverse mortgage so you can keep on living in the house, but the bank only wants to offer half what you think it’s worth. The stick-on tile you threw in the bathroom is curling up. You feel trapped. Stuck in the suburbs. But it’s so nice, so you’ll stay, except the one neighbor raises chickens to make ends meet and another large house has been converted to a halfway house.
Housing starts are still part of the GDP, so government and construction companies push for new homes, ones without your problems to inherit. Green homes that cost half as much as yours to heat and cool, built in rediscovered and razed neighborhoods near the city center, equipped with anything but glutinous-looking stainless steel. Those who can no longer afford to live so close to the city keep moving further out to escape taxes, just like you did. Someone stops by to offer you cash for your fixer-upper at a third of what it’s worth, saying it’s a complete gut. One of your neighbors is raising mink for some extra income, and you think back to when the neighbors wore fur coats and went to fundraisers, remembering the past fondly as it fades along with the paint job on your house that you won't be tackling on your own.