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The Enduring Popularity of Levittown, and Why It is So Hard to Replicate

Author and urbanist Witold Rybczynski looks at new housing in the aftermath of World War II compared to today. Why are new houses so much more expensive now than they were then?
October 7, 2008, 9am PDT | franny.ritchie
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"The first Levittown was on Long Island, the second in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the third in New Jersey. The Long Island project, because it was the ­first-­and the closest to New York ­City-­is the best known, but the Bucks County development, which began in 1951, was larger and more comprehensively planned and designed. At that site, the more than 17,000 homes on nearly 6,000 acres were intended chiefly for workers employed at a nearby steel plant. The largest and most expensive of the six model homes, the Country Clubber, was for supervisors and executives, but the ­three-­bedroom Levittowner was the workhorse of the development. It sold for $9,900, which would equal $82,000 today."

"The continuing popularity of the Levittowner after more than half a century does not mean that the demands of home buyers haven't changed over time...modern buyers expect to personalize their homes. In response, while today's builders still sell ­pre­designed models, they also offer scores of options: alternative façades, different materials, a variety of interior finishes, and 'extras' such as upgraded kitchens, higher ceilings, and ­add-­on sun ­rooms."

"What would such a house sell for? In 1951, the price of the original Levittowner ($9,900) was three times the national average annual wage ($3,300). In 2008, with an estimated national average wage of $40,500, a similarly affordable house should have a sticker price of $121,500. Yet according to the Census Bureau, even in the current declining market the median price for a new ­single-­family house in the first quarter of 2008 approached twice that: $234,100. So, the price of a modern Levittowner would have to be nearly 50 percent cheaper than that of today's average new house. Easy, you say, just make the house 50 percent smaller, about 1,200 instead of 2,469 square feet. But it's not that simple. In most metropolitan areas, the selling price of such a house would still be more than $200,000, considerably more than $121,500. "

Thanks to Franny Ritchie

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Published on Monday, October 6, 2008 in The Wilson Quarterly
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