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A friendly rant.

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:36 AM
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by 1527xy last modified Sep 01, 2011

Comparable. [kom-per-uh-buhl or, sometimes, kuhm-pair-] capable of being compared; having features in common with something else to permit or suggest comparison: He considered the Roman and British empires to be comparable. Remember this definition. It will be important later. Today I need to diverge from a more typical entry. I have something to get off my chest. Maybe a few things. I’d also love to know whether you think I’m off my proverbial rocker. As you read this post [...]



Comparable. [kom-per-uh-buhor, sometimes, kuhm-pair-] capable of being compared; having features in common with something else to permit or suggest comparisonHe considered the Roman and British empires to be comparable.

Remember this definition. It will be important later.

Today I need to diverge from a more typical entry. I have something to get off my chest. Maybe a few things. I’d also love to know whether you think I’m off my proverbial rocker.

As you read this post I don’t want to worry you too much. I’m not going off the edge like some modern-day Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast. And … our world isn’t crashing down around us. And … in case you haven’t picked up on this yet I can occasionally be sarcastic. Occasionally.

OK, something isn’t right, and it’s tweaking my mellow. But first, some background.

A couple of weeks ago we had a real estate appraiser visit our house. For those of you not familiar with world of banking and real estate, an appraisal is an essential step in obtaining a mortgage. Bank underwriters require this so that they know they’re covered in making a loan. They need to know that if we, as the mortgage payers, default on the loan, that the bank can sell the house and recoup its investment. It’s a CYA world.

Appraisers are tasked with finding at least three comparable houses (in terms of size, design and quality) within a mile of ours that have sold within the last 90 days. Now in our case, there are barely three houses within a mile, so that’s a bit of a problem. We are lucky enough to be on a very large piece of land, just a few miles from downtown. Our house, for Spokane especially, is also pretty unique. So that’s a challenge too.

But those aren’t the only challenges. In case you haven’t heard, the real estate market is awful. (there’s that sarcasm again.) In our region, the upper end of the market is moving slower than any other part. In fact, even typing “moving” is optimistic, since it implies progress. A more pragmatic phrase might be, shit ain’t selling.

So the appraiser had her work cut out. I spent a lot of time with her when she was out walking through the details of our project, the quality of craftsmanship, the custom, well, everything that went into the place. SIP panels. Custom cabinetry made from slabs of butcherblock, a bracket and roof system with enough steel in it to make the Golden Gate Bridge blush. You get the idea. She seemed to “get” our house too, which is a big advantage.

We eagerly awaited the appraisal report. What came back as comparable? Spec homes in the boonies. Evidently the appraiser couldn’t find anything similar to ours, especially not recent sales. As the first of many caveats I don’t blame the appraiser. I think the pickings are pretty slim, especially given that our house is relatively unique and the market is awful.

This said, let’s take a look at three of our “comps,” shall we? And for fun, I’ll add in a bit of color commentary. While I generally try not to be too judgmental in life, sometimes I can’t help myself.

First up is a fantastic find in Liberty Lake, Washington. For those of you not familiar with Liberty Lake, it’s near the Idaho border, about 20 miles from downtown Spokane. Note the fusion of architectural styles. The rockwork is evocative of the prairie school. Of course in this case the designers imported a color palette and stone from outside of the region. Maybe Fresno? How special! The broader craftsman movement is also a clear influence, as evidenced by the dormers. These act to bring extra space and light to an otherwise tiny house. This will be especially helpful in the “bonus room” over the garage. Along with the craftsman bent, notice the incorporation of Tudor lines and trim on the gables. That’s not enough though. No, the designers were looking at a travel brochure one evening, became intrigued with spending time in Switzerland, and added a little flair to the roofline near the front door. Nice! My personal favorite design element though is the black asphalt roof. Perfect for a summer like the one we just had, where the outdoor temperature was generally mild. Not so in this house. It’s hot all the time. So in this regard it’s a little bit of Palm Springs, right here in Spokane. Nice windows though. I think they’re real vinyl.

Next, let’s look at this charmer. To get to it from downtown, you need to suffer through a 25 minute-ish drive past some lovely strip malls. While some architects and designers look to van der Rohe, Kahn, or Palladio for inspiration, others may feel this is a bit pretentious. In their eyes, it’s William Levitt we must aspire to. Yes, the founder of Levittown, who forwarded a parti that by building a house on an assembly line and removing all encumbrances, one can build affordably. He argued with stunning wisdom and clarity things like, “any damn fool can build homes,” and “what counts is how many you can sell for how little.”  I feel flattered that our house can be included in this vein of design thinking! I’m not sure that Matt or Jesse would agree though.

About 20 miles from Spokane, just outside of the booming metropolis of Cheney, Washington lies this gem. Cheney. Seriously? Yes, seriously. The architects and builders must have looked deep into their bellies for inspiration. I’m trying to find something positive to pull from this image. Umm. Wait…no. How about…no. It looks like someone threw up on the land and a house emerged from the bile. Nice fountain though. I’m sure the mosquitos love breeding there.

How do these three homes compare in price to ours? Well, interestingly, they all sold for between 15 and 20 percent MORE than what ours appraised for.

This is what stokes the fire for me. Why, exactly, is this kind of “design” valued? Or, more to the point, why isn’t ours?

We spent more than three years designing our house. Matt did solar studies to understand how to take advantage of how it was oriented to not only be married with the land, but also to ensure that we’d allow the sun to help heat it during the winter, yet be shaded by the 12-foot roof overhangs in the summer. This summer, even during construction when windows and doors were open, the house never got over 81 degrees. It is DESIGNED to AVOID having to use air conditioning. Yet we were dinged on our appraisal for not having A/C. Look back at house number one with its black asphalt roof and no shade. I bet that thing requires two A/C units running full blast to keep it the same temperature as ours, with no air conditioning.

We also spent time thinking about how we could use great design and construction to make the house function incredibly well. The idea was to solve problems using sound principles, rather than solve them through more square feet. The result? A long narrow house built around three outdoor courtyards. And yes, for your architecture dorks this is a nod to Mies van der Rohe. An office tucked into a beautiful void between two other rooms. Storage built into soffits. Cabinetry that acts as room dividers and sliding doors in lieu of space-hogging swing doors.

The biggest factor for us in building our house was that the way it was designed had the potential to improve our lives. I can’t say that about our comps.

All of this leads me to a bigger concern. To be clear, I feel for the banks and the appraisers. While things were batty a few years ago, and some financial institutions did Very Bad Things, this isn’t the case with our bank. I’ve been thrilled with their service, integrity, advice and performance. Yet the regulatory pendulum swung back hard, and in many ways their hands are tied. The same is true for the appraiser, who is essentially forced to find SOMETHING to compare our house with, even when, in our case, this means a search for “ranch style houses with no basement on land.” Really.

This brings me back to the definition at the top of the post. Something isn’t right when our thoughtfully designed and constructed house is valued less than something that was picked out of 999 House Plans, and built in a less-than-desirable location. What’s worse is these homes are deemed more valuable because they have, say a 400 s.f. foyer that’s neither functional nor beautiful.

On top of this, the bank is put in a position where they can’t make the loan, despite a customer with stellar credit, downright un-American debt-to-income, a ton of equity in the property, etc. for fear of a heavy regulatory hammer. In our case, like I mentioned earlier, we’re in OK shape and have a solid path forward. For someone else? Maybe not, and I can’t see how this helps real estate market, puts architects, builders and subcontractors back to work, or invigorates the broader economy.

So what does this all mean? I’m not sure, but somewhere in there is some sad commentary about what’s valued in our built environment.




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