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March 1, 2024

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Attached-home option attractive to some homebuyers

Rising prices, lack of land have homebuyers looking beyond standalone homes

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
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Katie Barrett of Ginn Realty Group gives a tour of a model three-bedroom town house at Fisher’s View on Thursday afternoon. She said there aren’t any other new construction options in the established neighborhood.
Katie Barrett of Ginn Realty Group gives a tour of a model three-bedroom town house at Fisher’s View on Thursday afternoon. She said there aren’t any other new construction options in the established neighborhood. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Katie Barrett said the potential homebuyers who have toured her model home in the Village at Fisher’s Landing neighborhood are typically looking for a starter home.

“We’ve got some of the first-time homebuyers who are younger,” maybe a couple with one child, said Barrett, community manager and broker with Ginn Realty Group.

They’re embarking on that American dream of homeownership. In this case, the ticket to getting a newly built house in this desirable east Vancouver area for about $320,000 means being sandwiched next to neighbors.

Fisher’s View Luxury Townhomes are one of the attached home developments being built across Clark County. As home prices increase and buildable land dwindles, attached homes offer a less expensive alternative to a home with yard on all sides.

“The feedback is usually pretty positive except for the people who are used to living on a lot of land,” Barrett said.

Clark County, and the Pacific Northwest in general, doesn’t have a lot of what’s termed the “missing middle” — housing that’s between single-family detached homes and multifamily complexes. Duplexes, town houses and cottage-style houses are more affordable to middle-income people when a “regular” home is out of reach.

A median-priced home in Clark County became out of reach for typical first-time homebuyers in 2013, according to the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington, and prices have gone up since then. The median sale price for a local residential listing in September was $357,200, according to RMLS, a real estate listing service.

Construction of apartments and traditional stand-alone homes has ramped up, as have costs. In recent years, there’s been a slight shift toward building more attached housing. In 2014, 9 percent of single-family building permits were for attached houses. Last year, 16 percent of permits were for attached houses.

Few people set out to buy attached homes, which are often associated with big cities, said Patrick Ginn, CEO of Ginn Group.

“There’s not inherently a high demand for attached homes,” he said. “It ultimately comes down to affordability.”

As land costs go up, attached houses make financial sense. Since 2015, when home prices really began to rise, they have become a significant part of his business. Ginn builds mostly three- and four-plexes.

With his lowest-priced home selling for around $280,000, Ginn acknowledges that buyers still have to make pretty good money to buy one of his town houses. However, he sees attached housing as one way to ease the lack of affordable housing — both for renters and buyers. If someone currently renting buys a town house, then it frees up a rental.

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“Really what we need is an ability for our workforce to own a place,” he said.

Buyers can see some drawbacks to attached homes. They may be unsure about having a yard that fits little more than a grill, some lawn furniture and maybe a few plants.

Barrett said people moving into a town house after living in an apartment are typically excited to have any yard, no matter how small. She said there isn’t really anywhere else you can get new construction in the established Village at Fisher’s Landing neighborhood. Many of the surrounding homes — all much larger and on relatively spacious lots — were built in the 1990s.

Those looking for a larger lot will need a larger budget and may need to give up new-house amenities. Just down the street from Fisher’s View is a 2,000-square-foot detached home built in 1996 on a larger corner lot that is listed for $425,000. It falls short on some current trends, such as quartz counters and stainless steel appliances, which come standard in Ginn’s east Vancouver town houses.

Barrett started selling town houses with Ginn about four years ago when prices were around $214,000. She said she’s seen those same houses sell recently for $305,000.

“The prices definitely continue to go up,” she said.

Condominiums

Terry Wollam, managing broker for ReMax equity group in Vancouver, said it costs about the same to build an attached home as a detached home. Where the cost savings come is the size of the lot and the lack of setbacks between attached houses. Typically there needs to be 5 feet on either side of a detached house.

Wollam said attached housing is sometimes turned into condominiums, which are associated with significant liabilities for condo developers and may discourage their construction. However, the Clark County Council recently approved a resolution supporting the Legislature’s efforts to amend the state’s Condominium Act in order to “address concerns about excessive litigation risk, and encourage construction of affordable condominiums while maintaining consumer protections.” Amending that Washington law would make attached homes more appealing, Wollam said.

Apartments are beginning to see higher vacancy rates of around 5 percent; there’s still a high demand for apartments, Wollam said, but the supply is starting to meet that demand. That means developers and builders may shift their focus.

“I would expect to see in the Portland metro area more attached housing being created,” he said. “It’s a demand that hasn’t been met.”

However, attached homes cannot be built just anywhere.

Dan Wisner, owner of Osprey Homes, has been building attached homes since 1997, anywhere from a duplex to a seven-plex. He tries to build on the west side of county, typically on land zoned R-12 to R-30, which refers to how many homes can be built per acre. But, Wisner said, sometimes the interpretation of that code can cut down the number of town houses he can build, driving up costs. He can build an attached home on a 2,000-square-foot lot, whereas a detached home needs more like 4,500 square feet.

He said a developer may opt for apartments instead because they can get more units.

“A bunch of things stack up to where … it becomes harder and harder to develop townhouses,” Wisner said.

Ginn said there isn’t much buildable land available that’s correctly zoned for high density residential. He goes as dense as R-43 when building an attached community, which he said can fit a maximum of 82 town houses per acre.

Zoning lags

Despite being the most urban and populated city in Clark County, Vancouver’s zoning codes lag behind other jurisdictions in terms of being friendly to high-density development.

Currently, the city allows lots averaging 5,000 square feet. “Smaller lots can be created through special processes, but all have significant limitations,” said a memo sent to the Vancouver City Council in September. The city is considering creating zones that allow for denser single-family housing.

“Other Washington jurisdictions ranging from Olympia to Seattle are currently exploring options for expanding allowing attached (versus only detached) housing in low density residential districts. As with (auxiliary dwelling units), allowing limited additional housing types in single family zones is likely to be a supporting rather than lead measure in facilitating housing choice and affordability, but like ADUs also can provide opportunities for more dispersed wealth-building, as well as aging-in-place,” said the memo authored by the city’s principal planner, Bryan Snodgrass.

Battle Ground allows for single-family lot sizes as small as 3,000 square feet and allows duplexes on corner lots, but Vancouver does not. At the other end of the spectrum is Camas, which has some of the most expensive housing in Clark County and doesn’t have much land zoned denser than 7,500-square-foot lots and does not allow duplexes in single-family housing zones.

Snodgrass said the zoning changes are in the discussion stage. If adopted they could lead to a greater diversity of housing types in Vancouver.

Town houses are just one of the alternatives to detached houses.

Osprey and Ginn both try to negate the No. 1 complaint of attached living: noise from neighbors. Osprey offers homes with an uncommon wall, where attached walls are only adjacent to storage spaces and garages rather than living spaces. Due to their proximity to state Highway 14, some of Ginn’s Fisher’s View town houses have extra insulation to cut down on sound transmission.

Ginn said he’s on track to finish about 180 attached homes this year and 250 homes next year, many of which are part of four new subdivisions in the Landover-Sharmel neighborhood. The homes are all attached, with garages accessed via alleyway, on 1,400- to 1,800-square-foot lots.

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Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith