Sunday, September 12, 2004

Home Tours -- The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

So, how about something a little less heady than the two "enterprise ready" posts I put up recently? I want to put useful things up here, but they don't have to be as dry as the desert. I don't care for the desert; I'm a valley sort of person, preferring maple and Douglas fir to sage and pine.

"Home Show" season is just over in the Portland area, and we hit the three big ones this year (again). Jen and I have some sort of strange addiction to going to these things, but it seems we're in good company, because half the rest of Portland seems to be at every show we turn up to.

For those of you not familiar with these events, a group of builders works like mad for six months in a new development to erect houses showcasing their talents. Once comlete, promoters publish tour guidebooks crammed full of advertisements for companies who had some hand in the construction or decor in the houses, lending companies who will happily work a deal for you, or travel companies that figure anyone who wants to dream about owning a house like this will want to take a vacation to get away from their miserable existences. Stacks of guidebooks at the ready, the promoters open the gates and charge you twelve bucks to walk through the houses, "ooh"-ing and "ahh"-ing the whole way, right along with the rest of the wannabe millionaires in the local area.

The three shows we went to this year (and last) are The Street of New Beginnings (home prices ranging from $350,000 to $600,000), The Clark County Parade of Homes ($600,000 to $1,000,000) and The Street of Dreams ($1,300,000 to $1,900,000). To let you know where we stand in all this, our house is worth around $175,000 after several years of good market appreciation since we bought it (for significantly less). My point is, we're not exactly touring these homes trying to figure out which one we should buy.

The Good...
The best show this year was by far The Clark County Parade of Homes. The quality of construction was excellent, and the decor, at least in most of the homes, was very pleasant. Some of the styles were not to my taste, but someone must like them, as they went to a lot of work to put them in place. Still, when considering that you could have purchased any two of most of the houses on this tour for less than the low-rent home in The Street of Dreams, the value per dollar was extremely high. My commendation goes out to all the builders.

A lot of attention has been given in the last few years to outdoor living spaces, at least here in the Portland area. While our winters can be miserably rainy and dark, the temperatures rarely get below the level that you don't want to be outside. Indeed, many people here wear shorts year round, layering polar fleece and rain shells on their torsos to stay comfortable. So, as long as you can stay dry, outside is a great place to be, and houses with extensive covered porches and decks, complete with fully configured kitchens, fireplaces, dining areas and places to lounge have become all the rage.

The other hot-ticket item for these houses is the home theater. As big-screen technology becomes more accessible to Joe Sixpack (microbrew, please), home theaters are becoming more common. THX-certified audio systems, video-on-demand, high-definition televisions and hard-disk video recorders are available in every department store you look in these days. So, armed with some electronics, some dark wall paint, and a heavy velvet curtain, Joe and all his neighbors are putting in home theater rooms. At the home shows, the bar is set fairly high for making an impression, and builders seem to be willing to clear it. Wet bars have turned into mini-kitchens, screen sizes have gone up, and the subwoofers (one we heard was 3000 watts) will push the air out of your lungs. Ammenities include popcorn poppers, plush sofas, and recliners that you never want to leave. The wiring is all nicely routed through the walls to closets that hide the ugly technical details of the situation. And, with the rising price of movie tickets, not to mention movie popcorn, spending money on a home theater system is starting to make more sense all the time.

The Bad...
One downside to a lot of these houses is that they don't seem to be homes. By that I mean that, even though they have all of the checklist items for a family dwelling, a lot of designers don't seem to consider the needs of families. This is by no means a rule; there were several houses on the tours this year that were nearly ideal designs for your average family of four. Still, most houses concentrate a lot of floorspace in the master suite (where the people paying for the house sleep, I suppose), in some cases completely neglecting the needs or desires of other family members. Bedrooms beyond the master are small and oddly shaped, with poor attention to furniture placement options and almost no closet space. What teenager do you know that doesn't need about twice the closet space as their parents combined? In some houses, the master suite was not only at the other end of the house from the rest of the bedrooms, but on a different floor. While this seems great at first blush, how does one parent while the obj d'art is half a city block away?

And the Ugly...
The thing that really sets me on edge about some of these houses is running across glaring examples of poor craftsmanship amidst all the opulence. It's one thing to run across the occasionally squeaky floorboard, but quite another to see concrete sealer sprayed on patio doors or wallplates that don't quite cover the hole in the sheetrock. Communication between the tradesmen seems to be an issue, too. In one home, the counter that separated the kitchen from the foyer followed a curve that was reflected in the radius of the drop-ceiling edge. The lighting, recessed "potlights" in this case, also followed the curve, nicely integrating the whole look. That is, until you notice the built-in celing speaker, which seemed to be arbitrarily placed just off the line of the curve the lights were on, destroying the visual cleanliness of the fascade. Another look determined that the speaker placement was following a straight line of other speakers that went down a short hallway, but a minor adjustment to that line would have made the last speaker land perfectly on the curve line with the lights. Maybe only I notice this sort of thing, but if I were going to pay upward of half a million dollars for a house, I would want the builders to notice as well.

The sites are another thing that gets to me every year, and, listening to comments from the rest of the tourists, I'm not alone. I don't know about you, but I don't want to lounge around in my master suite's Italian marble-lined bathtub and find myself waving "hi" to the neighbor kids in the Ranger Rick playhouse next door, nor do I want to look into Mrs. Kravitz' bedroom from my home office. That's one place that The Street of Dreams did it right this year; the lots were an average of two acres in size. At first I thought, who wants to mow all that yard? But if you've got that much money, hire a landscaper.

In all, I enjoyed the home shows this year. The one thing that was really hammered home this year, though, is build versus buy. If you're going to spend that much money on a house, don't expect to get what you want in a pre-built home. Talking to a lot of people, I've culled the following tips:

  • Find an architect, a good builder, and a good site for your new home. If you go to one source for all three of these (a builder who has an architect and a realtor waiting in the wings to help you, for instance), you're either going to pay more than you should for the service, or not get just what you want.
  • Plan to wait two months longer than you think it will take (say, eight months instead of six) to accomodate schedule slips and post-build repairs.
  • Get a good warranty on the home, and hold the builder to the repairs. Once you've paid them for the job, they're off to do another house, and it's hard to get them to pay attention to the things you need on a job they thought they were finished with. Like horses with blinders on, builders only see what's in front of them.
Follow these links for more information on these home shows:

If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.


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