Developers start to think small in Clark County

Some builders try to meet growing demand for smaller, affordable houses

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter

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Roger and Diana Main are moving from the 2,250-square-foot house they built almost two decades ago.

Now empty-nesters, the Mains are downsizing to an 1,825-square-foot home with the master suite on the main level. They paid about $300,000 for the new house in the Urban Oaks subdivision in northeast Vancouver built by Urban NW Homes. It is more energy efficient and has air conditioning, a security system and a homeowners association, so “we don’t have to mow the lawn anymore,” said Main, 70.

Her husband is 76.

“We definitely wanted the master on the main. If you have a surgery, how will you get up the stairs?” she asked.

The average new American home is about 2,600 square feet, but plenty of new homebuyers, including the Mains, don’t want a large home. Downsizing empty-nesters like the Mains want one-level homes with no stairs. Many first-time buyers seek modest, affordable starter homes. “Green” buyers seek to reduce their footprint for environmental reasons.

Real estate agent Tracie DeMars with Re/Max Equity Group says she has plenty of buyers asking for new single-family homes under $250,000. Unfortunately, she can’t show them any new homes at that price because not a single developer is building them.

One of the smallest, most affordable new homes in Clark County is an 1,169-square-foot ranch by Olin Homes in Battle Ground’s Parkview Trails subdivision. The starting price is $263,919.

Land costs soar

The biggest factor driving up the cost of new homes is escalating land prices. This year, builders are paying about $30,000 more for a developed lot than what they paid last summer, said Laura Trodoux of New Tradition Homes.

“Land prices are skyrocketing for what we’re paying to buy developed land,” said Trodoux. “We’ve had to raise our prices.”

And so they have. Last summer, the company’s 1,679-square-foot Westport ranch started at $302,900. This summer, that same model is priced $40,000 higher, at $342,900.

Previously, New Traditions Homes offered a range of prices to appeal to many kinds of buyers. Trodoux said buyers ask for smaller, more affordable homes, but “there’s just nothing for that first-time homebuyer price point anymore,” Trodoux said. “It’s harder to accommodate them as the land prices increased. We talk about this all the time. It’s hard because you want to be able to offer something for everyone.”

It’s not just the cost of land that’s increased. So have construction costs, including foundations and roofs. When builders have paid so much for the land, it doesn’t pencil out for them to construct smaller homes, because the price per square foot gets very high, Trodoux said.

She explained that one-story homes have proportionately larger foundations and roofs than two-story homes. That translates to higher construction cost per square foot. Two-story homes usually are cheaper per square foot to build. The least expensive to build are townhouses.

Living tighter

Andy Gilbert of Pacific Lifestyle Homes gets phone calls daily from buyers requesting smaller homes. The company has responded. Its smallest, most affordable home is 1,814 square feet in east Vancouver’s Stonebrier development. It starts at $332,000.

“Buyers have responded like crazy to it,” he said. “A lot of people are looking to live a little tighter with less wasted space.”

The builder is considering offering even smaller homes, but the idea is still in the planning stages.

Most new homes in Clark County start well over $300,000. When the real estate market tanked during the recession, developer Troy Johns of Urban NW Homes was proactive and bought hundreds of developed lots at rock-bottom prices. That has allowed him to incorporate parks with amenities into most of his company’s developments without raising the price point too high. But most developers paid so much for the land that they don’t have the wiggle room to offer community amenities, he said.

Urban NW Homes also responded to the shift in the market toward smaller homes and now has 40 buyers on a waiting list for Parkers Abbey, a 258-lot development near Prairie High School featuring smaller, green homes — all starting at less than $300,000.

“The market has changed so much in the past two years when we started designing this project,” said Johns. “We’re getting a lot of baby boomers and first-time homeowners looking for smaller lots, smaller houses, less maintenance, green building practices, durability.”

Urban NW Homes has sold several 1,265-square-foot, one-level homes in its Urban Oaks development. The starting price, $320,000, pencils out to $252 per square foot. The company’s smallest floor plan is only 1,050 square feet, but so far, no buyer has requested it.

Nina and Mike Hightower of Camas hired Urban NW Homes to build them a 1,389-square-foot home that’s green and energy efficient. The solar panels makes it a net-zero home, which means they are producing as much electricity as they are using. The sustainable, small home has worked for the couple.

“It’s big enough. We don’t feel cramped at all,” said Nina Hightower. “We’ve had quite a few overnight guests, and it seems to work.”

The most affordable new construction in the entry-level price range in Clark County is townhouse condos. That generally means shared walls, miniscule yards and little private space. Several new developments are under construction around the county. All feature three bedrooms and 2 1/2 bathrooms.

Buyers will pay $229,900 for a 1,496-square-foot townhouse condo in Vancouver Heights; $238,999 for 1,640 square feet in Ridgefield; $259,900 for 1,726 square feet in Battle Ground, and $354,900 for a 1,676-square-foot townhouse condo in the Parker Village gated community in Camas.

Cheaper in Kalama

If entry-level buyers can’t afford a single-family home in Clark County and don’t want to purchase a condominium, here’s the solution: Go north.

Cheaper land and development fees in Cowlitz County have lured Clark County developers to Kalama, a town with 2,500 people just 20 miles north of Salmon Creek. The lower land costs and development fees in Cowlitz County can save developers — and homebuyers — about $50,000 per home.

Olin Homes offers a 1,522-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath Maple ranch in its Parkview Trails subdivision in Battle Ground for $275,830. That same floor plan is $47,512 cheaper — $228,313 — in Kalama’s Stone Forest subdivision.

Likewise, buyers can save about $52,000 if they buy Aho Construction’s 1,852-square-foot home in Kalama ($267,900) rather than in its Rivendell development in the Battle Ground school district ($319,900).

With cheaper land and its proximity to Vancouver, will Kalama become the new affordable bedroom community for those who work in Clark County or even Portland? Are families willing to drive half an hour to work in order to save about $50,000 and to put their kids in smaller schools to boot?

Time will tell.