Monday, June 12, 2006

Model homes

Thought we would spend some time out yesterday, and we drove down to a new housing area and visited some model homes. Yes, this is a popular thing to do out west. We used to hit model homes down in San Diego too. But that’s why builders put them up, so people can walk through them and get interested.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it’s standard practice here for a large home building company to purchase a large plot, sometimes up to several hundred acres, and lay out a ‘planned community’. To entice buyers the builder usually gets plans for four or five different size houses and builds one of each at the entrance to the area. These houses are professionally decorated, one of the garages becomes a sales area, flags are put up to indicate where to come, and anybody driving by can walk through.

There are several areas around Las Vegas where new homes are being built. We looked through the Sunday paper real estate section looking at the ads and selected the Montain’s Edge, this area is at the southwest corner of the valley. One developer bid on and purchased several thousand acres from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at one of their annual auctions – the federal government owns 85% of Nevada, so to get land to build homes it must be purchased from the BLM. This major developer drew up basically a small town, with area for schools and churches and shopping centers. A number of homebuilders then purchased sections from them in which to build houses. There are over a dozen different sections with different style houses now available. With each builder having four or five different styles this results in over a hundred model homes to wander through.

If a builder is putting up three hundred homes all of them look about the same. The four or five different models are basically just different size houses. There is usually a small one story three bedroom house, working up to two stories and four, five or six bedrooms. Each builder picks a price range and style for their section. We like walking through periodically just to see what new houses cost, and what decorators think that people want.

I was most disappointed by the prices – the least expensive houses we looked at were in the ‘low cost’ section, all were what I would call duplexes – a long house with garages in the middle and separate units on each side. These varied from 1,000 two bedrooms to 1,200 to 1,400 square feet three bedroom units. The least expensive was $235,000. Banks used to require 10% to 20% down, but now with house prices so high most will accept 5%, some even let you move in with no money down, even adding closing costs to the mortgage. So if you come up with $15,000 down that would still leave a mortgage payment of $1,800 a month. I don’t know what apartment rents are going for, but to get two bedrooms for $1,800 a month still seems like a lot to me, along with utility costs, and homeowner fees.

Oh, yes, that’s something else you have to figure on – homeowner fees. It’s standard practice now in new housing developments to have a homeowner association. This is a group that collects fees from all the houses each month, pays for maintenance and upkeep of the common areas – such as parks, entrance gates and landscaping or whatever. They also set rules for what you can do with your home. This includes such things as what color you can paint your house, landscaping, car parking, and how long you can leave your trash cans out on pickup day. Fees at sections we looked at varied from $30 per month to $450 per month.

I’ve got a basic dislike for homeowners associations. Builders like them, because they guarantee that a development will look nice while they are still building and selling homes. Usually a section that will hold two or three hundred houses is built a section of twenty or thirty houses at a time, over several years. So the builder might still be selling houses two years after the first ones are being lived in, and are thus interested in the area still looking nice. But this also places limits on the residents.

We lived in an area in southern California that had a homeowners association. There were about 250 houses in our grouping, but we had a small lake and a clubhouse with tennis courts, a swimming pool and a play area. Associations don’t do pools any more, too many lawsuits if a kid drowns. Back then we only paid $35 per month. But I didn’t like having a group tell me what color I could paint my house, sending warning letters if I didn’t mow my lawn often enough, or giving permission to put up a fence in your backyard. Yes, having an association does mean that you probably will not have that one neighbor’s house turning into a trash dump, or a purple polka dot paint job showing up, but at what cost? Most houses in Vegas are painted in ‘Southwest’ colors – dull browns and beige. Driving around yesterday I thought how hard it would be to find somebody’s place – the only thing different would be the street names and house numbers. Every house looked the same, about the same ‘desert’ landscaping out front, same colors, same shapes. I found it fairly depressing, but efficient.

Back to the model house tour – we drove down to the area, about a dozen miles from our home. There are some nice broad major streets, six lanes wide. These streets are lined with block walls, with some planting between the walls and the sidewalk, which usually ran right along the street curb. Since it’s a new area the trees were only about ten feet high. The block walls were usually six feet high. Periodically there would be a break in a wall, the entrance to the little subdivision inside. For the expensive sections there was an electronic gate, for the cheaper sections just a side road. This led into a maze of streets, with the models right by the entrance. Each section had lots of construction going on – being a newer area so far there are only about 3,000 houses built out of the total 20,000 projected. With each section having twenty or so under construction, this still means there were several hundred houses being built at the same time. Guess it is a good time to be a home builder.

The model homes are the same as homes already being lived in, but there is a low fence surrounding the group at the street, forcing you to walk in through the sales office to get in and to get out – giving a salesperson a chance to grab you each way and give their pitch. On the way in you pick up a pamphlet with a description of each model and the price range. The quality of the salespersons really differed – at one group there wasn’t even a salesperson there. At another we had to fill out a registration form to get in (for those follow up phone calls), some salespeople were really aggressive, others just used to hundreds of people tramping through each weekend.

Each grouping of homes were usually very similar – same size rooms, same basic layout, same interior designers selecting wallpaper and furniture. Most of the houses had large ‘owner bedroom suites’ with attached bathrooms, some with fireplaces and sitting areas, some not much larger than the bed. Most of the other bedrooms were small, none big enough for two kids beds side by side. Only one had bunkbeds in one of the rooms. But the common areas were where the space went to. One section had an architect that really liked ‘great rooms’ – a big central area, usually with a two story high ceiling and balcony for the second floor around the edges, containing the dining room and formal living rooms. Kitchens usually had counters where you could put two or three stools, and an attached family room where the kids could watch tv while mom cooked, some with a small kitchen table too.

Right, mom cooking. I don’t know what people’s salaries are, but if you’ve got a $5,000 a month mortgage, along with all your other family living expenses, I would guess that both parents are working long hours. I still like the image of June Cleaver (Beaver’s mom) with her dress and apron, always wearing pearls. I keep trying to get B to dress like that, even offering to buy her a pearl necklace (no, haven’t gotten her one yet) but for some reason she doesn’t quite get it. And I do most of the cooking anyway. Maybe I should get myself some pearls, hmmm, have to think on that one. Still think I wouldn’t do the dress thing anyway.

Except for the one area of the attached homes, every house had nine foot high ceilings downstairs. The most expensive group even had ten foot ceilings, and the great rooms. All advertised energy efficient houses with lots of insulation and fancy windows and multiple air conditioning units. But with temps over 100f now, and another four months of such heat to look forward to I imagine the electric bills for cooling such hugh rooms must be pretty high. Those houses had rather warm second floors, cold air dropping down into the great room. And winter heating, which for us result in higher bills, all the hot air gathering overhead – warming the bedrooms but keeping the living area cold. I don’t know, maybe all this energy efficiency works, but we don’t know anybody that has a house like that so I have no one to ask.

Most kitchens were nice – usually a lot of counter space, most with a closet that worked as a pantry. I like to cook, so spent time looking at those areas. This area was unusual in that the back yards were rather large. Some of the sections had yards big enough for a pool. The attached homes had walls about three feet from the back wall, with just a small shared patio. The average back yard was twenty feet deep, houses filling the lots with just six feet between them. All had garages up front, consuming most of the front of each house. Lots had three car garages. Without basements this would give you room to park two cars and fill the third area with storage. I’m sure all homeowner rules prevent you from parking cars in the driveways or on the streets. Well, having narrow lots and three car garages usually meant almost no place on the street to park anyway. The garages are so close to the street there is no room to park in the driveway without the back of your car sticking out into the street. Most of these places do not have sidewalks either.

Yes, you read it correctly; you are not allowed to park your cars at night outside of the garage. We have a friend in a homeowners association with rules like that. The group elected to run the association is usually composed of retired old biddies that have nothing better to do than drive around writing up complaint tickets. In his area they write up two tickets for parking on the street, and the third time they just call a tow company in the middle of the night. So imagine waking up in the morning, going out front to get in your car to drive to work, and finding the car gone. Then facing a two or three hundred dollar bill to get your car out of the impound lot, wherever that might be located. Usually in the far north reaches of the valley, cash only please. One guy here at work had his car towed, and was asked for his registration certificate before being allowed to bail out the car. As most people do, the registration certificate was kept in his car glove box (does anyone keep gloves in there anymore?). He was charged $45 admittance fee to go to his car and get the paperwork. Wow, what a way to make money.

B’ cousin lives on the east side of town. She talks about their neighbor that received a ticket for not keeping the pine needles swept up in her front yard. And she doesn’t even have pine trees – the needles blow in from several blocks away. Doesn’t matter, it’s your yard and you’ve got to keep it looking nice. And if a bush or tree dies, it must be replaced with a similar one. No originality there. Some of the associations are even preventing people from replacing grass with the recommended low water landscaping. Several lawsuits about that. We read stories in the paper frequently about the things that go on with homeowner association.

So, those reasons, and many others, we looked for an area without a homeowner’s association. That meant an older home, as all of the new developments have them. I don’t care if my neighbor paints his house in stripes instead of the dull desert pallet, or keeps a broken down car in his driveway. But we are in a ‘better’ area anyway, and no one does that. There is one house down the street with a lot of dune buggies and trailers in the driveway, but big deal, at least they’re going out and having fun. And no homeowner police. So I am able to pull out my grass and put in sagebrush and trees with nobody to complain.

Back to the start. We looked at the new decorating schemes. Seems like almost every house had wallpaper – we stripped that stuff out of our place. Homes went through a period of just paint, not designers are back to patterns and leaves and dull colors. The kids rooms usually had a wide horizontal stripe around the room. Still standard beige colors with a darker stripe, but at least something was done. Several ‘owner’ bedrooms had baths with both tubs and shower stalls, and all had walk in closets (except for the bottom of the line ones).

And prices – there was the one section with prices starting at $235,000. We wandered through six sections or so, none of the others had houses under $360,000. The biggest had price ranges from $565,000 to $680,000. I would agree with published figures, that the average new home price in Vegas is around $380,000. If you don’t have money then don’t plan on buying a new house. Pretty depressing, most families will never be able to buy a house. What does it take to save up $20,000 for a low wage family, then requiring over $2,000 a month just for a mortgage? If you earn $20 an hour, after taxes that is almost your entire take home pay. And I doubt if the average LV worker even makes that much. Most work here is in casinos and hotels – making beds, cooking food, doing maintenance. Lots of people not making lots of money.

OK, on to some unrelated pictures, just to give you something other than words.

Last week we went to the free concert at the county center again. It was Craig Chaquico and his band. We are not familiar with him, but he was sponsored by the smooth jazz station here, and evidently their listeners are. It was the largest crowd at one of the spring concerts we’ve seen so far. The grass was packed.

After listening to the music I did recognize some of the tunes. Most are currently number one on the smooth jazz stations around the west. But Craig also played with Jefferson Starship for twenty years, so he is able to rock. Some of the songs recorded as smooth easy listening jazz for the radio stations turn into really rocking numbers in person. Lots of people were up dancing. Craig used a wireless transmitter on his electric guitars, so he wandered around the audience dancing with people as he played. It was a pretty good performance. Next week it’s the New Orleans Night Crawlers, so that should be a pretty jumping time as well.

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