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Upscale regrets

Looking around the valley, I am struck by the puny size of my house. Chez Andersen is not exactly a yurt at 1,800 square feet, but it feels small compared to most of the homes in the Roaring Fork Valley.This leads me to a kind of smug judgment that most people’s homes are much bigger than they need be. I’m not talking about megamansions on Red Mountain, Starwood and Owl Creek, but rather in supposedly middle-class Missouri Heights, El Jebel and Basalt.I often wonder what people do with all that space and why they think they need it. Shuffling around in a cavernous house might be gratifying, and entertaining in a big house is perhaps optimal for big parties, but with big square footage comes the expense to clean it, heat it, cool it and, of course, build it. Some homes are built big because of family size, but most are overbuilt to accommodate something other than familial need.The reason most people build big is for resale. An 1,800-square-foot house like mine is simply not what the market rewards for maximum return in today’s real estate market. There are plenty of people who buy into this rationale as they design and build their homes.My wife and I find no such allure because we have no intention of selling. We love where we live in the Fryingpan Valley, and we plan on living here, albeit in comparative Lilliputian scale, for the rest of our functional lives.Scale is all important to us, and it begs certain questions: Is a home energy-efficient enough to afford escalating utility bills? Is the mortgage affordable and stress-free? Does the structure leave a responsible carbon and resource footprint? Are the spaces comfortable and functional?These questions pale as resale weighs in on the size issue. For most working folks, their home represents the bulk of their savings. Investing to the max in a home is a way of capitalizing on your worth. Building big is a way of reaching for the biggest return, which is how the real estate market flourishes.The resale of large homes is how real estate brokers make their vast fortunes. If everybody were to live out their lives in the houses they build, agents would suffer a scarcity of product. Resale is a guarantee for successive sales – a built-in turnover.The pitfall comes when homeowners stretch it too far. They expand with their eyes on the resale prize until the home they build is too rich for their means and they are forced to sell. Meanwhile, all others properties appreciate to the point where, eventually, it’s impossible to buy back in.The recent spate of subprime mortgage defaults is a harbinger that overbuilding and overbuying are widespread in America. A domino effect in mortgage defaults is a very scary thing because a crunch in housing will foster a crunch in nearly everything else.Building big to satisfy the real estate market is a form of economic entrapment. The work, strain, expense, time and, yes, even love, that goes into building a house are sacrificed for the resale prize. The big-dollar resale engenders a spiritual deficit when sellers are forced to move again and again in pursuit of the next big resale. This trend describes the pyramid scheme called speculation.Another concern, though it’s not foremost in any real estate prospectus, is the cost of repeat resale on the environment and the landscape, the cost to communities inundated by construction and dissipated by high turnover. There is also a psychic cost when a house is no longer a home, but represents only equity and labor – just another piece of property.The resale game is about investment, not attachment. You sell your home for top dollar and then move on. If you love where you live, if you have put heart and soul into your home, you’ve lost something in the transaction. By the time that cost is computed, it’s often too late.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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