Whatever Happened to the Starter Home?

The economics of the housing market, and the local rules that shape it, have squeezed out entry-level homes.

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By Emily Badger

The American starter home has been a bungalow, a shotgun house, a rowhome.Credit…Library of Congress

As recently as the 1990s, when Jason Nageli started off, the home-building industry was still constructing what real-estate ads would brightly call the “starter home.” In the Denver area, he sold newly built two-story houses with three bedrooms in 1,400 square feet or less.

The price: $99,000 to $125,000, or around $200,000 in today’s dollars.

That house would be in tremendous demand today. But few builders construct anything like it anymore. And you couldn’t buy those Denver area homes built 25 years ago at an entry-level price today, either. They go for half a million dollars.

The disappearance of such affordable homes is central to the American housing crisis. The nation has a deepening shortage of housing. But, more specifically, there isn’t enough of this housing: small, no-frills homes that would give a family new to the country or a young couple with student debt a foothold to build equity.

The affordable end of the market has been squeezed from every side. Land costs have risen steeply in booming parts of the country. Construction materials and government fees have become more expensive. And communities nationwide are far more prescriptive today than decades ago about what housing should look like and how big it must be. Some ban vinyl siding. Others require two-car garages. Nearly all make it difficult to build the kind of home that could sell for $200,000 today.

“It’s just become where you can’t get to that number anymore,” said Mr. Nageli, now the operations manager for the Utah builder Holmes Homes.

Nationwide, the small detached house has all but vanished from new construction. Only about 8 percent of new single-family homes today are 1,400 square feet or less. In the 1940s, according to CoreLogic, nearly 70 percent of new houses were that small.

Those starter homes came in all kinds over the years: mill worker’s cottages, shotgun homes, bungalows, ramblers, split-levels, two-bedroom tract homes. American families also found their start in brick rowhouses, cozy duplexes and triple-deckers.

But the economics of the housing market — and the local rules that shape it — have dictated today that many small homes are replaced by McMansions, or that their moderate-income residents are replaced by wealthier ones. (A little 1948 Levittown house on Long Island, the prototypical postwar suburban starter home, now goes with a few updates for $550,000.)

At the root is the math problem of putting — or keeping — a low-cost home on increasingly pricey land.

“When we started out 20 or so years ago, we could buy a lot for $10,000-$15,000, and we could build a home for under $100,000,” said Mary Lawler, the head of Avenue Community Development Corporation in Houston, a nonprofit developer. “It was a totally different world than we are in today.”

In Portland, Ore., a lot may cost $100,000. Permits add $40,000-$50,000. Removing a fir tree 36 inches in diameter costs another $16,000 in fees.

“You’ve basically regulated me out of anything remotely on the affordable side,” said Justin Wood, the owner of Fish Construction NW.

In Savannah, Ga., Jerry Konter began building three-bed, two-bath, 1,350-square-foot homes in 1977 for $36,500. But he moved upmarket as costs and design mandates pushed him there.

“It’s not that I don’t want to build entry-level homes,” said Mr. Konter, the chairman of the National Association of Home Builders. “It’s that I can’t produce one that I can make a profit on and sell to that potential purchaser.”

That reality conflicts with demographics. The typical American household has fallen in size for decades, even as the typical home has grown larger. Downsizing baby boomers and young adults who delay children figure to drive demand for smaller homes. So will increasingly diverse young buyers who have more debt and less access to family wealth.

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