Sunday, April 06, 2008

Propping Up Big Shitpile

Patriotic American than I am, I'm doing my part to prop up the housing market by buying a house. If all works out as planned, in a few days I'll actually own one.

It's been a pretty fascinating process. It's an incredibly complicated transaction, with dozens of moving parts having to align simultaneously. I recognize that it's also a pretty standard transaction, but there are many moments when low information buyers (and as a first time buyer I'm not exactly high information) could get screwed by the people they imagine are representing them but who in reality don't have an obligation to represent their interests solely (mortgage broker, real estate agents, etc.).

Aside from the transaction, it's provided a great opportunity to really explore the urban spaces of (parts of) Philadelphia. While I've long had an interest in such things, the opportunity to explore dozens of houses in various places has been a real education.

Unlike a lot (though not all) suburban development, parcel lot size has an immense impact on how places are developed. Given renewed interest in center city living over the past decade or so, there has been a lot of gentrification/complete rehab/new construction. In areas I was looking, the standard plot is fit for an attached row house. Most lot sizes are between 14 and 18 feet wide, with 16 being fairly standard. Depth can range from 40 feet for the classic Philly "trinity" (basically 3 rooms stacked vertically plus a bathroom and small back "yard"), to 80 feet or so, though the occasional 100 footer exists.

For plot sizes with more depth, light is a pretty big issue. Non-corner plots only have light from the front or back unless a piece has been sliced out to provide for side windows on a portion of the plot. Creative ways to bring in more outside light can be quite interesting.

The housing bubble never got completely crazy here, although I think it hit a point where a lot of builders/rehabbers thought it would be crazy and built/priced accordingly.

Most of the existing housing stock in relevant areas is about 100 years old. Some of the rehabbing has been of high quality, and some of it has been complete crap.

Fascinating to me at least! I've long thought that constraints can actually foster creativity, and some builders have been quite creative with the limited spaces they've had to work with.