Homebuyers take to great indoors Trade-off: The latest trend in housing is the incredible shrinking lawn. Buyers are moving into larger houses on postage-stamp lots.

June 05, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The American dream may still be a home in the country, but more and more families are waking up to the realization that they really don't want the troubles of a large yard.

Even as the average size of a house increases -- by 22 percent from 1977 to 1994 -- lot sizes are declining, by more than 18 percent over the same period. The result: large, pricey Colonials and Tudors shoehorned into small tracts, a trend that is transforming some suburban neighborhoods.

Tom and Karen Robinson are among those busy couples who didn't have time to mow, weed and groom a large lawn.

Three years ago, they traded their half-acre yard on Providence Road for less than a quarter of an acre in a new development in Lutherville. In the process, they moved from an 1,800-square-foot rancher to a 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom colonial at the end of Countrybrooke Way.

"We didn't want to take care of a half acre any more," says Tom Robinson, an electrical products salesman. "I wanted to spend more time with our son and not cutting the yard twice a week."

The Robinsons were the first to buy in the Seminary Overlook development off Seminary Avenue, where houses sell for between $320,000 and $400,000 and sit on lots ranging from less than a quarter of an acre to just over a third of an acre.

Bob and Anita Posterli bought a 3,500-square-foot house on a third of an acre in the same development last year. Their house includes a two-story family room, cathedral ceilings, four bathrooms, a two-car garage -- and 41 windows, which Anita Posterli is still trying to cover.

"It's better to have a small lot and a bigger home because you live in the house," she says.

And small yards have advantages other than low maintenance, she points out. The Posterlis' three children are close to their playmates and are always within sight of an adult.

Patio homes

Like many of the nation's housing trends, the move to larger homes on smaller lots began in the West, where so-called patio homes were being built on 3,500- to 4,000-square-foot lots, says Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research at the National Association of Home Builders.

Nationally, the average lot size of new single-family homes has shrunk from 16,150 square feet in 1977 to 13,645 square feet in 1994, while the average home has grown from 1,720 to 2,100 square feet as builders have added bedrooms, bathrooms and fireplaces, he says.

In 1971, for example, only 15 percent of the new single-family homes had 2 1/2 baths or more, but by last year that number had grown to 48 percent. Meanwhile, the number of new houses with four or more bedrooms increased from 24 percent to 30 percent.

"People do not mind the smaller lots," he says. "Taking care of the outside is much more difficult than taking care of the inside."

Baltimore-area families that didn't want to spend time tending yards traditionally opted for city rowhouses or suburban townhouses. But a few years ago, builders began offering large, detached houses on small lots.

This new version of the American dream was unexpected, says Rose Jaeger, a real estate agent with O'Conor Piper & Flynn in Reisterstown.

"We were a little surprised to see these big homes on small lots, but the demand was there," she says. "The majority are younger professionals. Both work and they want the weekends to themselves."

No time for gardening

Many of these young families came from townhouses and wanted larger rooms, but didn't want to commit to a bigger yard. "These people don't have time for gardening," Jaeger says.

One of the most radical designs was introduced in Baltimore County four years ago by Talles Construction Co. in Pikesville, which used a configuration called a "Z-lot" for its Cobblestone development. The plan allowed Talles to build 118 houses on a 37-acre parcel that normally would have accommodated only 80 houses.

Houses in Cobblestone range from 1,900 to 3,200 square feet and sell from $200,000 to $400,000; lots are generally less than a sixth of an acre.

Room for a cookout

"There is enough of a back yard for pets and a barbecue," says Paul Lambe, the development's sales manager.

Cobblestone tends to appeal to older residents whose children have left home. They like the community's location, the upscale housing and the fact that the homeowner's association maintains the yard and exterior of the houses, Lambe says.

Talles expects to complete construction of the community this year and is looking to build a similar small-lot development in the Baltimore area. "There is great demand for it," Lambe says.

Sandy O'Donnell, community manager for Richmond American Homes at the Seminary Overlook development, says the location and amenities can sway even those buyers who would prefer larger yards.

Richmond American's houses there include a two- or three-car garage, four or five bedrooms, an open foyer, 9-foot ceilings, oversized soaking tubs, fireplaces and public utilities. Many buyers come from the Lutherville area and want to stay in the neighborhood, O'Donnell says.

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