ANALYSIS : How Developers Put the Squeeze on O.C. Housing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County is being squeezed.

So expensive is land these days that builders shoehorn far more houses onto an acre than ever before. And these new houses are expanding to the point where many nearly cover their lots, leaving scarcely a few feet of lawn between them.

Suburban residents often equate crowded urban neighborhoods with poverty, but the county's wealthier residents are the ones moving into these new, cramped communities because only the wealthy can afford these new houses.

Architects, pressed by builders to squeeze enormous houses onto tiny lots, must design them upward because there is no room on either side. Ceilings, for instance, are getting higher and skylights more numerous to enhance the illusion of space.

Soon, architects and urban planners said, houses will have to stop growing: Lots simply are not large enough to accommodate homes much larger.

The new houses are crammed so much tighter than the old suburban housing tracts of the 1950s and 1960s--with their expansive yards and small houses--that the inevitable next step is not too far away: A preponderance of attached condominiums and townhouses, where residents share lawns and courtyards because land is too expensive for detached houses.

What is perhaps most troubling about this trend is that builders work mostly for the wealthy these days--a narrow market even in the best of times. The era when vast tracts of small homes were sold at prices cheap enough for the middle class is gone forever in Southern California's coastal counties.

For suburban communities elsewhere in the nation, Orange County is a glimpse of the future: In time other suburbs across the nation can expect the same cycle as their land values rise, urban planners said.

That glimpse worries some architects and planners because most of the houses built in the last few years bear the stamp of the same style and impart a sameness to parts of the South County's cityscape.

While architects worry that many of these big houses are unlovely boxes, builders fret that they may not be able to satisfy their affluent customers if yards get much smaller and buyers begin demanding yards and privacy again.

Kelly McDermott, a consultant to the local building industry, said: "I'm amazed at the prices people are paying for homes so close together. You absolutely have to draw the drapes because your living room looks directly into someone else's bedroom. And you may have paid $600,000 for the house."

The price of a new county house averages a stunning $382,000--among the most expensive in the nation--because the county's booming economy created a feverish demand for housing last year. A big chunk of that price is the cost of land, which is getting extremely scarce and expensive. Land prices in some neighborhoods soared 200% just last year, according to a county survey.

Even the least expensive lots for houses in some areas can run past $100,000. The building industry has a rule of thumb: The cost of building the house should run a little more than three times the cost of the land, because it does not make a whole lot of sense to build a teeny, inexpensive house on a costly lot. So houses must get larger to justify those enormous price tags.

Just two types of people can afford such a large house these days: a tiny slice of the county's most prosperous residents and people who have owned homes a long time and are sitting on a mountain of equity, thanks to rising prices.

What people get for their money is often a two-story house that in some neighborhoods has swelled to 2,400 square feet on a lot of just 3,500 square feet. That is just a little larger than the average tennis court.

With a three-car garage, which is not counted in the house's square footage, even a two-story house of 2,400 square feet leaves room for just a tiny patch of grass.

Consider these figures: The average new house in South County--where most construction occurs--is 2,600 square feet. Two years ago it was just 2,000 square feet, or nearly a quarter smaller.

Meanwhile, lots are not getting bigger. Half the 80 subdivisions under way in South County have lots of less than 6,000 square feet--the same as two years ago.

The result can be an architect's nightmare. They try all sorts of tricks to keep these behemoths from becoming, in the words of one critic, "clunky boxes."

One of the biggest problems is the three-car garage, which takes up so much of the front of the house that it leaves just a smidgen of space for the front door and perhaps the odd window or two. Home buyers insist on the garages, whose doors are one of the few architectural elements visible from the street. The result: Whole streets full of row on row of blank garage doors.

To prevent the house from looming over the street, architects set back the second story. To foster the illusion of a yard for cheaper houses, the architects and builders have created the zero lot line, which means pushing the house right up to the edge of the lot--usually on one side--or expanding the patch of yard at the other end.

Then there is the newest wrinkle, the Z-lot, which positions the house diagonally on a rectangular lot so more yard is created at the two open corners. And many houses are on"wide and shallow" lots, which means that the house presents a wider, grander facade to the street but that the lot is not very deep in back--and the house behind may be just a few feet away.

While they may not look like much from the outside, these new houses can be palatial inside. They average about 10 rooms these days, including "power bathrooms" with his-and-her wash basins, plus fireplaces, wine racks, window seats and other accoutrements of affluent suburbanites. Kitchen counters are surfaced with Italian tile, and windows are bigger, with all sorts of unusual architectural shapes.

"The insides of these houses are truly magnificent," said Sanford R. Goodkin, a consultant to the building industry. "But why shouldn't they be for $800,000?"

Some of the biggest bathrooms in the country are being built in Orange County, Goodkin said: "I've seen tubs the whole neighborhood could bathe in."

All that is a far cry from the old suburban tract home with small rooms, a single bathroom, low ceilings and tiny windows. In fact, until the 1960s most home builders did not use architects; according to lore, many of them sketched plans on their kitchen tables.

Since then, designing houses has become a big business in the county. (There are at least 150 firms based here that work for home builders, said the American Institute of Architects--probably more than anywhere else in the nation.)

Also, California architects have a disproportionate effect on home design elsewhere in the nation and the world. For better or worse, what is old hat here is often new wave elsewhere.

That might surprise people who see a depressing sameness in the architecture here: the ubiquitous Mediterranean-style houses with their stucco walls, tile roofs and pastel tones. But that look seems to be what buyers want. Tile roofs, for instance, are seen by many buyers as a sign of quality.

Land prices are so high that builders do not often gamble on big design changes for fear of losing their shirts.

The pink stucco palaces are actually just modern versions of the sort of houses movie starlets once built in Beverly Hills in the 1920s and 1930s.

Four years ago, the style came back in Orange County. And it was largely because of one man: Donald L. Bren.

Bren is the publicity-shy billionaire who bought the Irvine Co. and its vast landholdings in 1983. He is fascinated by architecture and is determined to leave his mark on the county's cityscape. He has the chance to indulge his tastes on a large scale: The Irvine Co. owns one-sixth of the county's land.

Four years ago, the company began building Mediterranean-style houses--a style Bren became fond of on trips to Spain and Italy--in Irvine's Turtle Rock neighborhood and later in Westpark.

A sizable chunk of all the homes, condos and apartments built in the county each year are built on Irvine Co. land, about 1,500 out of 23,000 structures on average. Because of its size, the company has a great deal of influence on design and tastes well beyond the land it owns.

With a building boom on around the county, soon everyone was building Mediterranean houses and very little else. Even the company's vice president of planning and design jokes that the county's builders may soon run out of Spanish names for their projects. The style has already spread to the booming new subdivisions of San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

There is already a backlash. Coto de Caza--a posh South County community popular with Orange County's horsey set--insisted that J.M. Peters Co. Inc. abandon the Mediterranean motif for the $700,000 houses that Peters will build there.

Peters, which builds some of the biggest houses in the county, is starting to worry about another fact of life: Buyers may go elsewhere if the company cannot make the yards of its houses bigger. That means, of course, that the lots will have to get bigger--which is unlikely--or the houses will have to get smaller.

"They want 30 feet of back yard, and we're only giving them 18," said Jane Gramme, director of product development at Peters. "The houses may be getting too big."

It will not be easy, though, to reverse what has been going on most of the decade. Houses started getting bigger after the last recession ended in 1982 and the local economy heated up. When the buying boom of the last few years came along, homes got bigger to justify the enormous prices builders were charging.

It will also not be easy to wean people from the suburban ideal--the single-family house on its own piece of land--to a condominium, where most of the open space is shared with the neighbors. But that is clearly the direction the county is going.

In contrast with new houses, new condominiums are--by California standards--much more affordable, at a median $173,000. As house prices rise beyond the means of most county residents, more condos are being built. Attached housing already constitutes 40% of the new housing under construction in South County; experts expect it to account for more than half the new housing there well before the turn of the century.

For most middle-class home buyers, the alternative to a county condo these days is a house way out in San Bernardino or Riverside counties, where they are cheaper because land is more plentiful. If the buyer's job remains in Orange County, however, he faces a grueling daily commute through the county's legendary traffic jams. Traffic, more than anything, may eventually sell condos to even the most ardent suburbanite, urban planners and other experts said.

"There will always be a market here for the single-family, detached home," said Aram Bassenian, a local architect, "because it's so ingrained into the American character. It's even a strong desire of the newly arrived immigrant.

"But at a certain point, it will probably have to be abandoned."

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