There’s No Place Like Home…on a Cul-de-sac

It may mean more sprawl, but home buyers in NAHB’s latest consumer survey say they still love traffic-free streets, jogging trails, and lakes.

Can you achieve efficient land use by building high density communities with interconnected streets? Sure—but it won’t be appealing to the typical homebuyer, according to NAHB’s latest consumer survey. More home buyers desire a suburban neighborhood of all single-family detached homes than any other community feature listed in the survey, and nearly 80 percent prefer a cul-de-sac over efficient traffic flow when given the choice.

Complete results are published in Housing Preferences of the Boomer Generation. Although the publication emphasizes the preferences of Baby Boomers, it contains results for home buyers of all ages. A chapter of particular interest to land developers and city planners is the one on how home buyers choose a community.

Overall, the 2015 survey asked home buyers to rate approximately 150 features using this this scale. Nineteen of these were community features. Figure 1 shows the percentages of home buyers rating each of these features essential and desirable.

The most desired of these features is a “typically suburban” community (defined in the questionnaire as consisting of all single-family detached homes) rated desirable or essential by 72 percent of respondents. After that comes a group of three community features rated essential or desirable by 64 to 66 percent: a park area, being near retail space, and walking or jogging trails.

Next comes a lake, rated essential or desirable by 54 percent of buyers, followed by a group of community amenities rated essential or desirable by 46 to 48 percent: a swimming pool, outdoor maintenance service, and an exercise room.

The Less Popular Features

At the other end of the scale, tennis courts, other mixed use (defined as homes near office or other commercial buildings, to distinguish it from homes near retail space), baseball or soccer fields, high density (smaller lots and attached/ or multifamily buildings), a golf course, and a daycare center are each rated essential or desirable by fewer than a quarter of the home buyers.

Home buyers are not merely indifferent to the features at the bottom of Figure 1, but often explicitly hostile toward them. For example, 52 percent of buyers said they “do not want” (are unlikely to buy a home in a community with) a day care center, 53 percent “do not want” a golf course, and 46 percent “do not want” high density. These are three of the six highest “do not want” percentages among all 150 home and community attributes listed in the survey (only an elevator, pet washing station, and wine cellar fare worse).

High density is interesting because public policy often seeks to encourage it. The number one housing policy cited in Policies that Work (published by the Governors’ Institute of Community Design) calls for “cities and counties to permit more multi-family and higher density housing.” Yet nearly half of home buyers do not want to live in high density communities. The caveat is that the 21 percent who rate high density desirable or better, add up to a significant total in an area as large as the U.S. So high density housing can be successfully developed for a significant minority of home buyers, although most want something else.

Figure 2 shows the “do not want” percentages for the eight features at the bottom of the Figure 1 by generation, youngest to oldest from right to left (Millennial=born 1980 or later; Gen X=born 1965 to 1979; Boomer=born 1946 to 1964; Senior=born 1945 or earlier). An interesting aspect of these relatively unpopular community features is that they tend to be rejected even more often by older home buyers.

For example, daycare centers are explicitly rejected by 70 percent of Seniors—three and half times the 20 percent rejection rate among millennials. This is the tendency you’d expect for daycare centers, but in other cases the result may be more surprising. Golf courses, for example, are sometimes considered particularly appropriate in retirement communities. But this study shows that Seniors reject golf courses more often than Gen X’ers and millennials.

The original article, written by Paul Emrath, Ph.D., can be viewed in the Spring 2016 issue of Best in American Living.

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