Heading back to town and out of the sprawl....
Recently, I discussed with a Chicago newspaper editor the current trend of people wanting the 'town' lifestyle approach as opposed to the car-friendly subdivision life of recent decades, and as I'm prone to do, I kept thinking about it after the conversation long after it ended. To me, the issue is more than just a passing fancy, or one generation doing the opposite of the one before it (which is a universal truth since the beginning of time). America has long been a bastion of expansion, of limitless land/resources/time/money, and perhaps the realization that commitment to spreading out loses it's luster when you aren't actually farming and have to drive for hours to get to your cubicle is behind a lot of this. Many buyers coming of age in recent years grew up in the sprawl, whether it be in vast subdivisions of tract housing or in enclaves of mcmansions, they waited for rides to soccer practice, had quiet neighborhoods with maybe a playground or a walking path for entertainment, and trees in the area had those bags around them to help them grow for the first few years. They went off to college and took that first job in the city, and saw the endless possibilities of public transportation, movie theaters and restaurants down the block, finding a favorite clothing boutique and getting to know the owner, spontaneous concerts in the park, an all that goodness that comes from living in a hub of activity, not a hub of closed garage doors. And guess what, some of found out they lived in the same neighborhood their grandparents lived in! ;)
Perhaps going to visit mom and dad back home in the burbs triggered the 'i'm gonna do it different' response, or maybe they looked at the miles and miles of 80's/90's oak trim in the 2-story living room, and felt overwhelmed at the cost of renovating such a big house and said 'hey what about this cute cape cod fixer-upper 2 blocks from the train station in Arlington Heights instead?' The downtowns of the 1950's were eschewed as being old-fashioned or too precious, and people tired of the tiny houses when they saw how BIG you could build on that cheap land farther out from the city. Now, however, BIG means BIG money to repair, BIG taxes, BIG maintenance, and a BIG commute. As salaries get smaller and living gets more expensive, that little house with a manageable yard and a lively neighborhood seems so much more appealing. For those that want to put their stamp on their new house, kitchens and baths are easier when they don't require 6' sunken jacuzzi tubs and 20' of cabinetry in order to be super stylish and trendy, and the smaller amount of wasted time, money, materials, and economic risk are also appealing.
That last bit - the lower material and environmental cost - is something that also resonates with me personally. It's possible to have all the luxury you need, if that's your thing, without committing to acres and clearcutting a forest. I know there are some people that really crave the space and quiet and room to stretch that a country estate provides, but the falling values of those properties in recent years reflects the fact that lots of people THOUGHT they needed it, but realized it's also a whole lot of work and cost to keep it up. It's not for the novice or the faint of heart. Nature will reclaim anything you try to alter to your human tastes unless you are constantly chasing it with a mower, power washer, mulch pile, hardscape maintenance, weed spraying, aeration, pruning, and the like. I think a lot of buyers now are saying 'i'd just rather be walking to town to try the new brewpub than meeting painters for bids on my 6000 s.f. of cedar siding that needs painting every 7 years....' I would love to see more people investing and fixing up the houses in the sprawl, both because I think their neutral style can be turned into literally anything that a buyer dreams up, and because I love all houses and I hate to see any of them being neglected. Realistically, though, I see why they are not at the top of the list when it comes to investment by new, younger buyers. Some of the buyers I have worked with recently - myself included, in investment searches - have been in this 'town vs country' conundrum, and often when the dust settles, the laundry list of costs associated with making that big house on the 2 acres their dream home just can't compete with the smaller home that is a kids' bike ride away from the school and the train station.
Another personal take from me is that I am all for anything that works within the current map of the land humans have already ruined. Rebuilding neighborhoods, gentrification, teardowns, repurposing, vertical expansion, and the like keep us within our boundaries and limit our encroachment into the landscape, and that's a good thing. There are still vast swaths of cityscapes that are abandoned and derelict due to the escape to sprawl back in the day, and I hope developers and governments keep investing in the trend of buyers willing to jump back in to the community and out of the culdesac.