Vickie Leonard

Vickie Leonard

A weeklong electronic journal.
July 20 1999 7:14 PM

Vickie Leonard

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Monday, I joined two women Realtors to view the "Street of Dreams" homes. It's a Seattle tradition of new homes decorated with lovely furnishings. This year's homes were pricey--$1 million to $3 million.

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The homes were large, 6,600-plus square feet, almost tastefully gargantuan. They spread sideways with no basements or third stories. Energy conservation was not a theme. Windows overlooking stands of evergreens and earth tones prevailed.

As I show homes, I am often cognizant of how a house's fixtures and layout scream or whisper its age. The distinctive bubbled yellow glass of the 1970s, the delightful wood-framed glass-front cabinets of the 1920s, and the white-with-green-accent vinyl flooring of two years ago. Looking at these luxurious new homes, I noticed changes. The bathrooms had one sink, one tub, and one shower, no two-sink bathrooms. The huge master bedroom had become a mid-size bedroom. Children's bedrooms were no larger than bedrooms in modest 1950s homes.

Where was the space going in these massive houses? The master bathroom grows ever more spacious. There is its mate, a similarly large dressing/closet area, no longer merely a walk-in closet. (Think two-car garage for each.) The open, hall-like kitchen melds into the massive family room, fit for family reunions. Tucked upstairs were wall-TV-viewing rooms. The requisite living room and dining room, though near the front door, are considered as useless as the formal parlors of yesterday.

I couldn't help thinking that next time homebuyers grumble about a smallish master bedroom, I can reassure them that this is the coming style, as are small bedrooms for children. Should they lament that there is no two-sink bathroom, I can murmur, "It's a bathroom ahead of its time--only the children's baths in the Street of Dreams homes held two sinks."

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What is easily glossed over during the tour is the bottom line. Exacerbated by population growth pressures on land prices, housing prices in many cities have become wildly high. A recent survey of prices nationwide for a 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom, 2.5-bath house found ridiculous prices. In Boston, it costs $421,000, while in Worchester, Mass., it was $211,000. In southern Virginia's Lynchburg, it was $196,600, but $289,000 in D.C.'s Virginia suburbs. Seattle's price is $263,000, while Bellevue, Wash.'s price is $344,000. Should Hillary Clinton buy in New York, she should choose Westchester County, where it will cost $353,000, considering that in Manhattan the home would be $1.1 million!

In the heartland (not the flyovers), prices are more reasonable. Suburban Kansas City's price is $159,000; in Rochester, Minn., it's $156,000; and in Springfield, Ill., it's $135,000.

Was it the publicity from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil that pushed Savannah prices to $163,000, past Charleston's, Lafayette's, and Lexington's? Meanwhile, California recovered from its slump and again has high prices, with San Mateo at $671,000, San Jose at $456,000 and even Davis at $255,000.

While there are many smaller, less costly homes, the fact remains that huge amounts of our dollars are going into home purchases. John G., a homebuyer, told me that if he were going to pay $325,000 for a home, he would expect the house to serve him breakfast in bed.

In the meantime, builders create ever larger, costlier homes, leaving those with moderate incomes behind. I think fondly of a wonderful builder who has shifted from building custom homes at half a million dollars to townhouses at $175,000. To afford this three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot townhouse, a family's income should be at least $65,000. That's an income beyond many schoolteachers, service workers, and bus drivers.

On the lighter side of our Realtors tour, we often seemed like the Marx brothers. One of our pagers would vibrate, then we would scramble for an immediately reliable phone. Mine is temperamental, disliking many locations, including my office and the Street of Dreams. Joan had triggered her phone's security system. It stubbornly refused her access until she could remember the special supersecret code. Was it merely coincidence that the agent who had played women's soccer had the most useful cell phone? You be the judge.