Those Darned Teardowns

Many of you in the custom home market are finding it difficult to locate and purchase land. Production builders are buying huge parcels of land on the edges of development, leaving bits and pieces for custom builders and architects to fight over (provided they hear about the land before it’s sold).

In some markets it’s so tough to find land, custom builders are banding together with direct competitors to form buyer groups, thereby maximizing their collective strength and giving themselves a better chance of acquiring land. Builders at NAHB’s recent Custom Builders Symposium told me that while it might seem surprising they’re partnering with the competition, it’s the only way they can own land to build on. These are smart builders.

In Chevy Chase, Md., home builders are dealing with the shortage of available land by implementing the increasingly popular teardown approach, in which existing homes are purchased, then torn down to make room for new homes. A recent story on "60 Minutes" illustrated how this Maryland community is fighting the teardown movement.

More than 500 residents became so turned off by the huge, often ridiculously large homes being constructed on these pieces of land, they signed a petition, convincing local lawmakers to enact a moratorium on teardowns. Lawsuits and requests for waivers followed. Reasons for the moratorium, as one town representative told me, included, among others: allowing residents the opportunity to discuss what they want their town to look like; acquiring more zoning power; and crafting new provisions for setbacks.

What these Maryland folks don’t understand is that teardowns keep the American dream alive, keep builders in business and keep progress moving forward. Why should homeowners who want to build new be forced to commute two hours to work because the only available land is 60 or more miles away from the big city? They should be allowed to tear down a home closer to work and build a new one in its place if they can afford to.

However, it’s a problem when homes built on teardown lots are three times the size of neighboring houses, and their architectural style looks nothing like any home on the block. One of the monster homes on the "60 Minutes" story looked ridiculous next to the much smaller neighboring houses. This is what the Maryland residents are fighting, and to that end, I support their fight.

So, when building on a teardown lot, I urge you to have respect for local architecture — the neighborhood’s character — and build to blend in, not stand out. Don’t be the bully on the block by forcing your will on it. Be a good neighbor — fit in.