Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Baby Boomers & Their Housing, Then & Now

Being baby boomers, most of us came of age in suburbs of the big cities in the 1950s and 1960s. Not many of us lived in the hotter areas of the country then and one factor was whole house air conditioning was only in a few houses and businesses. If you moved to the hot zones of the United States, you were most likely going to swelter back then. So many of us grew up in colonials where the main thing was to heat your houses and of course heat travels upwards. So you got a lot of bang for your buck in a colonial because you did not need the huge foundation of a ranch, you could easily fit a growing family and they were easy to heat and keep warm.  If you are living in a colonial today in a hot, arid section of the country, real estate people will tell you that you bought it because you grew up in one, not because it suited your local climate or topography. My father used to say that the big problem with colonials is that people stayed on in them past those family rearing years and they really shouldn't. This was because he regularly sold houses where people who were aging and with medical problems started living on the first floors of those colonials rather than sell and move into what they really needed, a ranch with no stairs. When they could stand it no more, they called him. For most of my life I lived in colonials which is not unusual for a Midwesterner.

If you grew up in the West or South, ranch homes were more commonly found than they were in the Midwest and North, although their popularity grew there as well. A big factor on how expensive this ranch was going to be was whether it had a basement or not. The foundation is huge for a ranch and thus a basement one of its most expensive features. More of a lot was needed too. Plus more of a roof.  Most people were unwilling to live without a basement in the Midwest, where I grew up. In the West and South though, they were used to houses without basements. In the Post War baby boom era though perhaps the biggest disadvantage was that if you were going to have a big family, ranches were not well suited for them with just one floor. The one group they are perfect for is all of us baby boomers in our senior years because of their ease of access and mobility. And we certainly don't need a basement because of those same harder to use stairs.

Split levels, bi levels or tri levels, all have one salient feature, lots of stairs. They may be shorter in length than in the colonial but they are everywhere. It is this factor which accounts for their being rarely built anymore. Yes, there are lots of them because for a few decades we built them like crazy. At first they also seemed to solve a lot of problems as a kind of hybrid to a ranch and colonial. But as time went on, the stairs and the family room being in the sort of basement on the lower level dimmed in popularity as far as building new ones. For the baby boomers though, it did give a fair amount of house for a good price until they hit the senior years. Then it was found to be even worse than a colonial because you can't even live on the first floor to avoid stairs.  There is no way of avoiding stairs. So if ever there was a house to live in with your young family and then sell, this was it. 

This is what a bungalow looks like.  Most people do not know what they look like and this is because the real estate industry got in the habit of calling every house with bedrooms up and down a bungalow. This was true no matter how unlike these pictures those houses looked.  Bungalows do have two stories.  But the distinctive feature is that they have a bedroom and bath on the first floor and more bedrooms and bath(s) on the second. In a small bungalow a dining room might be omitted in favor of a large eat in kitchen but the dining room is there in the larger ones. They also usually have basements.  If you can find one of these actual bungalows, they are very nice houses.  But they are older houses and in older suburbs. Since they are an older style, they also usually have some sort of front porch feature. Because of the bedroom and bath on the first floor, people can avoid stairs if they want to live on the first floor.

Two alternative styles came in as we were coming of age. These are the A-frame and Geodesic Dome. Nowadays it is more likely you will see these as vacation homes instead of primary residences.  However, they are riskier styles in any setting. The A-frame's problem is that it is all roof. As you walk around in it, you constantly feel the roof pressing against you as a constraint, even if it is not actually touching you.  The geodesic dome is actually a lot roomier and more efficient than almost any other kind of design.  But people basically don't like them.  I thought since I love modern and abstract art that I would love such a house.  But I've been in them and the roundness and geometry everywhere got on my nerves. Perhaps you need to be brought up in one.  I also found both of these styles too dark inside no matter how much glass they put in the front or back.

Many of us are now used to condo living but few of us baby boomers grew up in one as they were only in a few areas when we were growing up. If you were growing up in New York City, you may well have lived in a condo or coop apartment building but in most of the rest of the country you did not. 

Likewise, loft space came about around the time we came of age but it was rehabbed city space in major downtown areas.  Some of us may have tried it but few who had families, outside of New York and a few other areas, stuck with it.

Just like the cars we looked at, we are now looking closely at our housing because many of the things we took for granted we are no longer able to do so. This will affect generations after us much more seriously than it will us. In fact, we may be wholly unaffected.  Some of these issues are whether we will continue living in large numbers in the following: far flung suburbs with long commutes to work and leisure activities; arid areas where droughts, fires and water availability are getting worse (assuming climate change is indeed going on); large unused square footage primarily used for decor when energy reserves continue to deplete; high cost of living niche sections of the country when our work is not dependent on where we live (we can move and live more cheaply); coastal areas if natural disasters continue to rise in occurrence (again if climate change is indeed going on).  There are many more issues but I think you get the general drift.

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