Coffee heat rising

Why is the grass never greener…?

Am I the only person who keeps imagining the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and then, once I’m in the pasture, discovering that’s not grass—it’s Astroturf?

On the way home from Saturday’s six-hour choir workshop, what should I spot but an open-house sign (Sotheby’s: around here, that spells “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”). It pointed to a tract of new construction smack in the middle of the desirable Seventh Street to Seventh Avenue corridor known as North Central, just a few steps away from the old-money Episcopalian church I frequent. Since the outfit that tried to install a set of pricey ersatz “lofts” directly across the street from said House of God went belly-up, leaving a partially built hulk to weather away in the middle of a weed-strewn lot, I figured this developer couldn’t be much better off.

Indeed not.

The perky blonde Realtor said the four units they’d completed had been sitting there for over a year. One of the houses had a contract on it, but if it fell through, she remarked, the developer would probably be foreclosed. When the four models were built over a year ago, she said, the developer had asked upwards of $500,000 for them. The current asking prices ranged from $365,000 to $399,000.

Interesting. Though $365,000 is $100,000 more than I can afford, it’s edging toward a killer bargain for 2,200-plus square feet in a tony in-town district. Asked if the seller would come down some more or relieve the buyer of her own house, the Realtor thought not.

The models were very nice: big kitchens with top-of-the-line appliances (including gas stoves), attractive design, landscaping included. And pretty clearly, if a person were to wait long enough, a person could buy them from the bank for significantly less than 385 grand. The infill land the developer had acquired had room for 18 houses. So far he had built four and sold exactly zero new dwellings.

Even the Realtor remarked that she would be cautious about buying in a development so far from being built out. With four models up (only one of them provisionally sold), we were looking at the possibility of living in a tract full of weed-infested empty lots.

On the other hand…for the startling monthly HOA fee, the four future owners (assuming four buyers ever materialize) could afford to grass over the empty lots and turn their surroundings into a pocket park. Or, what the heck: put Astroturf down over the whole place and never have to water it. 😉

Speaking of Astroturf, after a perusal of all four formerly half-million-dollar models, here’s what became evident:

Though the houses had common walls, the developer had the effrontery to claim they were free-standing structures with “no common walls” (so say his flyers) because they’re built with a pocket of air inside the contiguous walls.

The HOA fee starts at an exorbitant $151 a month, and all that covers is maintenance of some low-cost desert landscaping and single short asphalt road leading into the tiny tract. No insurance, no pool, no tennis court, no community lighting, no nothing. Around here, that is very high for a tiny HOA with almost no costs.

Every house had two stories. This meant no one would have any privacy, because everyone could see into at least two neighbors’ backyards and windows.

The staircases were exceptionally long and steep, with only one handrail. Sprain an ankle or have your back go out (to say nothing of, say, suffering a stroke or a debilitating heart attack), and you’d be sleeping on a downstairs sofa. And of course, everyone loves dragging a vacuum cleaner up dozens of steps, cleaning each one on the way.

The lots were so tiny that even with the houses jammed together like duplexes, each house had no front yard and a postage stamp in back. One model essentially had no back yard: its downstairs master bedroom occupied the entire back end of its lot.

In a laudable attempt to escape the snout-house look, the developer had built the garages in back, accessible from city-maintained alleys. This meant that to haul your groceries in, you had trudge across the back yard, enter through a back door, and traipse through the family room or dining room into the kitchen. Nothing like getting your exercise, rain or 118-degree shine!

The models’ backyards were landscaped. Whoever designed the landscaping hadn’t a single clue about plantings and trees. In two of the teensy yards, they had planted sissoo trees. In the biggest of the houses—one that had a studio over the garage, giving it around 3,000 livable square feet under roof—they had planted two sissoos! Sissoo trees get huge, quickly reaching sixty feet in height with forty-foot-wide canopies, and they have a fine proclivity for heaving sidewalks and foundations. They’re widely considered to be a nuisance tree. Because the yards were so minuscule, there was no way to place such a monster tree far enough away from the structure to avoid damage.

The handsome kitchens looked, at first glance, to be very upscale, but on closer inspection, the cabinetry was the same Kraft-Maid stuff that the previous owner of my house had ordered up from Home Depot and installed himself! The wall cabinets didn’t extend to the ceilings (which were not unduly high), and so they didn’t hold much and their tops functioned as efficient dust-catchers. I can testify that my cabinets do not hold a set of Costco wine glasses, which are generally too tall to fit. If you adjust the shelves so you can fit a few wine glasses within reach, you end up with one shelf space that’s too shallow to hold anything taller than a cookie sheet. For the half-million bucks the developer originally hoped to get for these places, he could’ve afforded to hire a finish cabinet maker to build some custom cabinetry.

The gas stovetops were amazingly small. Mine is not large, and I can just fit a large frying pan next to a saucepan. The design of these left even less space to array four pots and pans. At most, the four burners would accommodate only two large pans at once.

The sink was nothing special. The Koehler unit I installed in my house, with its two large, deep sinks and gooseneck faucet, is far more usable.

It was, in short a faux gourmet kitchen designed for people who eat out most of the time.

The view from the second floor revealed that most of the neighborhood consisted of aging high-density housing: old apartments dating back to the 1950s, at least one of them distinctly down at the heels. The best of the models, on the north side of the little tract, backed onto the playing field of a large public middle school. Though the traffic generated by such a school would concentrate on the other side of the building, residents of the new tract would enjoy a constant serenade of P.A. system announcements, blaring, electronic change-of-class bells, and kids hollering. The private school a half-block to the south is not served by school buses or public transportation. This means hundreds of parents parade past every morning and every afternoon, dropping off and picking up their kids.

Each house had two air-conditioning units, except for the large model with the studio over the garage, which had three. Think of that. If one AC unit generates $220 bills during a 116-degree July, three could present you with a $660 tab!

IMHO, a two-story duplex—tucked between aging apartment complexes and a large, noisy school and amazingly dubbed a “single-family detached home” because it’s separated from its adjacent neighbor by a three-inch-wide air pocket—is a far cry from my block house on a quarter of an acre with a large pool, five citrus trees, and room to grow a sissoo if one were so inclined. They may be new and they may be on the “right” side of Seventh Avenue, but they’re not worth $100,000 to $150,000 more than my place.

Astroturf. Very overpriced Astroturf.