December 18, 2015
In what might be considered an annual tradition, the discussion over new construction in Needham is a gain on the hot stove. This includes letters to the Needham Times from concerned residents to what appears to be a concentrated push from local committee members to propose changes to the current zoning by-laws.
While examining both the existing regulations as well as potential new regulations is clearly important for both the stability and evolution of our town, we believe that it is also imperative not to over generalize what is happening in the market.
At Hawthorn Builders, we are celebrating our tenth year of developing homes in Needham, and we thought it was a good time to present a few important, and perhaps overlooked, viewpoints that are relevant to this collective discussion.
The first is the popular belief by some residents, including a recent contributor to the Needham Times, is the housing stock being replaced by new construction would otherwise be sold to potential buyers looking to enter Needham at a lower price point. The reality, in our experience, is that the vast majority of the homes being torn down are functionally obsolete and many are not habitable in their current condition. They were built with designs, materials and techniques that have been significantly improved upon in recent years. They often contain hazardous materials such as lead paint and asbestos which are expensive and intrusive to remove. These homes are being marketed and sold to developers because their sellers understand that that today’s buyer is not likely to buy a home that has not been updated in decades, i.e. with little to no insulation, original windows, an obsolete, inefficient heating system, a small kitchen, low ceilings, asbestos flooring, little closet space or any combination of these and other characteristics of many post World War II homes which make up the majority of the town’s teardowns. A functionally obsolete home being sold for its land value is not and should not be a viable option for an end user in the same price range. The costs to bring such a home to today’s standards are overwhelming.
When we meet with a potential seller about their home, if we believe that the property is not a teardown and that the homeowner would benefit from selling the home through the traditional real estate market, we will make that recommendation. Usually, this is when the home’s overall value is considerably more than its land value and it is worth the additional costs and hurdles associated with a market sale. Multiple homeowners who first approached us as developers have elected, based on our advice, to list their property on MLS. Ultimately however, it is the decision of the seller to do what is best for them and their family with respect to selling their property and sometimes this means a private, hassle-free sale at market value.
Another preconceived notion is that new construction represents a change in Needham’s community for the worse. Many new construction projects, including the majority of ours, are custom, which means that an end user is attached to the project from acquisition, through design and on to completion. These are families who recognize the benefits of our community and are making a long term investment in its future. In many cases, those building new homes are already your neighbors in Needham and are moving from their starter home to a new home that better suits their growing family and standard of living. In one instance, a customer elected to tear down their existing home of ten years in order to build a new home on their lot so as to stay in their neighborhood.
In all cases, these new homes, while larger than the homes they are replacing, are being designed and built with care, attention to detail and with all of the benefits of today’s building practices. Often, the larger homes have smaller carbon footprints than the homes they are replacing and they require less energy to operate. The next time you pass by a large, new home, consider that it may be heated and cooled using geothermal technology rather than a 50 year-old oil boiler with an efficiency of under 80 percent. New construction, as a result of stringent building codes and the willingness of consumers looking to employ green technology, is helping to make the community a healthier, more energy efficient place.
Our experience in other towns where regulations and restrictions are tighter have often resulted in design challenges that fall outside the intended goal of the regulation. This exists because it is difficult to create zoning by-laws that apply universally. What may make sense on a lot of one shape or size may not hold true on another. This is why Needham has different regulations for lots of different sizes and configurations. Arbitrarily restricting development on these lots will lead to fewer creative design options (i.e. if side setbacks are increased, front elevations may be forced to be dominated by the garage because there is little room for anything else). These inferior designs could ultimately turn off some end users in the market and/or render certain lots undevelopable. If redevelopment is no longer an option for these obsolete homes, their values will decrease significantly.
In the end, the strength of any real estate market is predicated on supply and demand. If there is enough demand for a product, then sales will continue to flourish. If a consumer does not want to buy a home because it is too large or they do not like the design, they can cast their vote in the marketplace by buying something else that fits their needs. If a seller does not want to see their home torn down, they can take measures in their sale to prevent that. There is currently steady and healthy demand in all segments of the Needham real estate market. This should be seen as welcome news as it will allow our town to continue to prosper. It is important to understand that placing certain restrictions on development will have an adverse effect on overall market values which will ripple through the real estate market. This ripple will be felt by all residents as well as our businesses and restaurants.
At Hawthorn Builders, we look forward to the next ten years of adding value in our community while also understanding that there is always a need to look at where we are and whether it makes sense to make any changes. We are happy to continue to deliver quality, custom homes in a market where there is great demand. We consider this a testament to the tremendous town that we call home.