The Vanishing American ‘Starter Home’

Rising land costs, expensive materials, and onerous building and lot size requirements are making it harder to build small, affordable ‘starter homes’ in the United States.

2 minute read

September 28, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


First-Time Buyers

rSnapshotPhotos / Shutterstock

For decades, the American Dream of homeownership rested on the concept of the ‘starter home:’ a simple, affordable, single-family house theoretically within financial reach of young people and families just starting out. But as Emily Badger writes in the New York Times, that path is increasingly closed off to most American households.

The nation has a deepening shortage of housing. But, more specifically, there isn’t enough of this housing: small, no-frills homes that would give a family new to the country or a young couple with student debt a foothold to build equity.

The rise in the cost of homes is due to a variety of factors, Badger continues. “Land costs have risen steeply in booming parts of the country. Construction materials and government fees have become more expensive. And communities nationwide are far more prescriptive today than decades ago about what housing should look like and how big it must be.” In some cases, requirements mandated by local ordinances raise the cost of construction.

Today, many builders say it’s becoming impossible to build small, low-cost homes on increasingly expensive land. Solutions include permitting the construction of more than one housing unit on a parcel and encouraging a variety of housing types such as townhomes, bungalows, and other ‘missing middle’ housing. “In the early 20th century, communities were effectively using all kinds of models to solve for affordable, entry-level housing. But the arrival of the car enabled people to move further out, and new planning ideas declared what would be built there.” With the midcentury suburban model growing more and more unsustainable, the future may well involve looking to the past.

Sunday, September 25, 2022 in The New York Times

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