Mortgage banker Frank Valentine has a long list of activities he prefers over yardwork: going to the opera, attending concerts at Oregon Ridge or exercising. Ditto for his wife, Donna, who works long hours in her job as a radio programming executive.
The Valentines, who are in their early 30s, are precisely the type ofbuyers Aoki Homes is seeking at its new Baltimore County community, Foxridge at McDonogh. Catering to people who want the ease of condo living without the apartment-house feel, Aoki has brought to Baltimore the unusual concept of back-to-back townhouses.
The Valentines own 4 acres of woodland in Carroll County. But they've deferred building a big house in favor of a simpler lifestyle. Recently, they purchased a townhouse at Foxridge, near Owings Mills town center and McDonogh School.
"Since we're never home, I love it," Mr. Valentine says. "Our condo fee takes care of everything on the exterior and the new-home warranty takes care of everything inside."
High land costs and the scarcity of buildable lots have triggered the interest of Aoki and other builders in the back-to-back townhouse concept, which was introduced into the Washington market more than five years ago. Buyers, meanwhile, are attracted by the prices, which are thousands of dollars lower than those of traditional townhouses.
"It's going to be a prominent product line in the future," predictsJoseph Nason, Aoki's manager for development and sales in the Baltimore-Washington area. Aoki's Columbia-based homebuilding subsidiary, part of a diversified Japanese industrial firm, is selling at least four units a month in Owings Mills -- ahead of the pace of many townhouse subdivisions.
With the exception of end units, all of Aoki's back-to-back townhouses adjoin other units in the back and on the sides. So almost all of the units have windows only on the front and have no back yards.
Architects working with Aoki have sought to make the most of the front wall -- adding bay windows, balconies and patios there -- to give buyers a sense of openness. To maximize window space on the front, the townhouses have wide, rather than deep, floor plans. That means adjoining, side-by-side rooms with plenty of windows.
And prices are low. Back-to-back townhouses are priced as low as $99,000 at Aoki's Owings Mills development. That compares to an entry level price of $122,000 for a traditional Aoki townhouse there.
"The product appeals to professionals who work long hours -- both single and married," Mr. Nason says. "It also, strangely enough, appeals to people who have jobs like teachers -- who may want to take a couple of months each year and go away. The only people it really doesn't satisfy are large families."
It's also beginning to appeal to developers.
"We're looking at the idea," says Richard Azrael, president of ChateauBuilders, a Columbia company that builds condominium-apartments, townhouses and detached homes in Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
"You can get more houses on the acre," he says. There's a steep reduction in the cost per unit to install utilities, including sewer, gas and electric lines, he said. Paving and grading costs are lower, too.
Because of lower land and development costs, Aoki can build a large (2,000 square foot) back-to-back townhouse for $7,500 less than a traditional townhouse, Mr. Nason said. Construction costs are about the same.
Homebuilding executives say the supply of lots for residential construction is shrinking, because of a financing crunch for companies that develop residential land.
"We're coming into an era when we're going to be confronted with a shortage of lots," says Frank Miano, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
But back-to-back townhouses require even less land than traditional townhouses, despite the fact that townhouse yards are typically slender and shallow.
"It's definitely a more dense product. If you look at the building from the air, it looks more like an apartment building than a townhouse development," says Fritzi Hallock, a senior associate the Baltimore-based Legg Mason Realty Group, which tracks the new home market in the region.
Ironically, townhouses of any sort are simply not marketable in land-scarce Japan, Mr. Nason said. "It's very much of a cultural difference."
Indeed, modern townhouse developments in the United States have taken hold only in areas such as Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, where such homes have a long tradition. It's in the mid-Atlantic states that back-to-back townhouses are likely to become more prevalent.
Especially if prices remain low. Although back-to-back townhouses sell for about $10,000 more than a condo-apartment, they're typically priced $10,000 below a conventional townhouse, Mr. Azrael says.