Smaller + Greener = Winner

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Smaller + Greener = Winner

By Marilyn Pribus

Statistics and reports reveal a definite move toward people building and buying smaller homes than a decade ago. “I think the trend really started with the recession,” declares REALTOR® Greg Slater, an associate broker with Nest Realty in Charlottesville. “Everyone started looking at building projects more closely.”

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the average house size reached its peak ten years ago in 2007 at a bit over 2,500 square feet. By 2015, the average was estimated to be about 10 percent smaller and the trend seems to be holding.

A related development is the “greening” of housing with careful attention paid to special components and construction to enhance energy savings. “The correction in the market was an opportunity to really look at energy efficiency,” Slater continues. “A high percentage of Charlottesville builders were into green changes before they were required to be.”

Also popular is repurposing materials during construction. For example, Latitude 38 is a Charlottesville home building company specializing in energy-efficient homes. Although Latitude 38 builds only new homes, some components aren’t new. “We like to reuse material when possible,” says co-owner Joey Conover. For example, they have employed previously used wood from various sources including old barns and even flooring from a basketball court being replaced by a high school.

Informed Buyers
“We have much more informed buyers in the world,” Slater says. “We all changed our mindsets after the recession.”

One mindset that changed was about house size. “It wasn’t so much downsizing as ‘right-sizing,’” Slater points out. A smaller home costs less to build, of course, and requires a smaller mortgage, and over the years, there is less upkeep, and lower energy expense for heating and cooling.

In addition, smaller homes fit better with today’s lifestyle. Families are smaller and often no one is home during the day. People are more likely to seek recreation and to entertain away from home, so dwellings are less likely to have a formal foyer, living room, and dining room.

Instead the family room, kitchen, living and dining areas are likely to flow into each other, decreasing the need for walls that take up floor space. Another change: today’s flat-screen TVs and small speakers replace the space-gobbling “entertainment centers” of previous years. 

Other features high on today’s house shoppers’ wish lists include the familiar and valid desire for location-location-location. Safety is another important requirement, followed by a floor plan that suits the buyers’ needs, and upgraded kitchens, separate laundry rooms, and double garages.

Age Matters
Another factor driving smaller homes is America’s aging population. “Builders always talk generationally,” Slater comments, “and the Baby Boomers have a tremendous influence on economy and housing now.”

When the kids leave home and folks retire they often choose to downsize to save money and the effort of maintaining a large place. Statistics show about 13 percent of the population was 65 or older in 2010 and that number will be approaching 20 percent by 2030. These people generally prefer single-level condos or houses with green, senior-friendly features, such as generous main-level master bedrooms, barrier-free doors and showers, and definitely low maintenance.

“Still,” Slater adds, “the real drivers today are the Millennials. They are just hitting the age for buying their first house. They will be driving the construction market and they want the right type of house with walkability, connectivity and energy efficiency.”

Energy Efficiency Is Essential
New homes and retrofits are generally moving toward more green features fostered by technology such as low-E windows (these have coatings that minimize ultraviolet and infrared light without compromising visible light) and water-efficient features such as dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets.

ENERGY STAR®-rated appliances, heating and air conditioning units, lighting fixtures, and even roofs are pretty much standard these days. (ENERGY STAR® is a government-backed program helping businesses and individuals protect the environment through superior energy efficiency.)

Substantial insulation is another definite plus, according to Slater, and one that adds value as a retrofit. “A tightly built home with better insulation costs less to operate without substantially driving up the cost of that home” he says.

While insulation is certainly nothing new—although new insulating materials and installations are being devised—desirable new tech features are emerging almost daily. “Thermostats these days are programmable and wi-fi connected,” says Slater. “And tankless, on-demand water heaters have great convenience. They have a memory so you get hot water right away and you don’t run out.” This is true even with teenagers in the house.

“Another trend really popping up is solar panels—basic or retrofit,” Slater adds. “The tax benefit has been extended and people are basically paying for power in advance. With the help of appraisers, solar has an add-on value as well.”

One company he cites is Virginia-based Pearl Home Certification, an organization that verifies the value of environmental upgrades such as solar panels and other energy-efficient components. Cynthia Adams, Pearl’s CEO, explains, “The certification of upgrades ensures they are included in appraisals so homeowners can recoup the value of their ‘green’ improvements for refi [refinancing] or resale.”


Really, Really Small Houses
There is a small, but emerging trend toward truly small houses—600 square feet or less. In fact, tiny houses are even offered for sale on eBay! These are not allowed by some zoning restrictions, but can be a great primary dwelling or a “granny flat” on the right property. 


Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County in a 20-year-old, 1,400-square-foot home with retrofitted green features.

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