Real Estate Trends Don’t Favor Far-Flung Suburbs

 

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Baby Boomers find it hard to believe that their large far-flung suburban homes may no longer be prime real estate.  When they bought these properties ten to twenty years ago features like a large yard, double or triple garages, and a big media room were coveted. Likewise, was the capacious family room /slash/ kitchen, the slate entranceway, and cathedral ceilings.

NEW BUYERS-NEW TASTES

The new home buyers, the Millennial generation, can seldom afford these large suburban homes, particularly if the location is remote and depends on a long drive to reach employment centers. The Millenialls had the greatest financial setbacks during the 2007 crash, and still carry massive student debt. But, even if they could afford these homes, tastes move on. There is no law that says they have to step into the shoes, or homes, of their elders. The exception will be if they inherit these properties, and even then, they may choose to sell them and live closer-in to urban centers.

The Boomer’s homes, in many ways, were modeled after a mythical “Ozzie and Harriet” TV show, with a stay-at-home Mom and two young children. The real inhabitants, the Boomers, had 1.8 children and Mom held a full-time job. Boomer women worked many hours and commuted long distances to keep their families in these large, comfortable suburban homes.  Boomer women were the first generation to acquire a second household vehicle, and drive nearly everywhere.

Now, there is a pushback from the next generation, who view that this model has more negatives than positives. Millennials and Digital Natives are less interested in DIY weekend projects or maintaining a large lawn. They view long commutes as unnecessary, as well as expensive, wasteful, and mindless.  For working moms with children, the long commute is also a time sink that displaces family time with the kids.

DEMOGRAPHICS MATTER

The most important reason that far-flung suburban homes are languishing on the market may be that the Millennials don’t  “fill them up” well. Today, 27 percent of the U.S. population lives in one-person households. Twenty nine percent of married couples have no children, and only 26 percent of mothers with children under 15 stay-at-home. Big suburban homes conflict with modern demographics.

JENNIFER WEINER  “All Fall Down”

In a blog, we usually don’t combine fact and fiction, but a chapter in All Fall Down by the popular author Jennifer Weiner, describes the picture. Here, the heroine, a thirty something character, is lamenting the big house her husband has acquired in a Philadelphia suburb.  Here are some excerpts: ”Dave and I had both grown up in decent sized paces in the suburbs, but the ** house had rooms upon rooms, some of which seemed to have no discernible function…every piece of furniture we owned… …barely filled a quarter of the space, and it all looked wrong….I’d never considered myself indecisive or suffered from fear of commitment, but somehow the thought that bed you are buying will be your bed for the rest of your life…would make be hang up the phone or close the laptop before I could even get the first digits of my card number out.”

GOING FORWARD?

One of the key laments of the narrator is that she no longer takes the train to work and instead, works from home on a blog (!)**. Her daily routines are the carpools, class mom duties, package pickup, and shopping.  The narrator is living the Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle, in a suitable house.  But, she is still unhappy. The problem is that Ozzie and Harriet were fictional, and the lifestyle they portrayed went out of style nearly fifty years ago. However, their housing stock is still with us, even though the aspirations of modern households have updated. No one knows quite what to do with these old fortresses and they might make their new inhabitants feel grumpy and trapped. That is one of the puzzle pieces of Aging in Suburbia.

**Full disclosure: That fictional suburban house is on a well-served suburban train route


Aging and Driverless Cars

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Many people believe technology will help Boomers age-in-place by automating their homes and assisting with daily routines. But, the most vital technology will not make inroads into the home. This technology will start, and stay, on the road.

The driverless car is coming and it will help people age-in-place, when they need to hang up the keys and stay mobile. But, the technology can do more.

It has unheralded benefits for pedestrians and bicyclists, both young and old. Driverless cars have the potential to reshape suburban strips and streetscapes to be more pedestrian friendly, even if they were originally designed for fast moving cars.

Through countless trials and many years of testing, driverless cars have shown to stop at crosswalks, obey traffic signals, and make safe right-hand turns. Whether they detect a swaggering drunk, a dad pushing a baby carriage or a meandering golf cart– the driverless cars slow down and avoid collisions.

SAFETY FOR PEDESTRIANS

This capability is vital for older people who plan to age-in-place. When people retire, they have more time to take a stroll, and they recognize the benefits of getting regular exercise too. But, there are serious impediments for aging Americans, the so-called Baby Boomers. The first impediment is that neighborhoods in newer subdivisions often lacked sidewalks. The grassy lawns extended right to the street. Even when sidewalks were part of the infrastructure design, they were afforded secondary rights. To reach somewhere, pedestrians maneuver across busy streets and in some cases, across sidewalks intersected by freeway ramps. That does not bode well for the aging Boomer, who wants to take a stroll.

FROGGER REVISITED

A related problem is that most roadways seem to have traffic signals timed for the through-put of vehicles, not pedestrians. An aging population will find it hard to play “frogger”- that is to sprint across a busy, wide intersection as the light changes from red to green.

The number of older people in the U.S. who are hit by cars and die is not large compared to other traffic fatalities, but the number is still too large. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports a total of 4,735 pedestrian fatalities in 2013. Of that number, 896 were people over age 65 or 19%, and another 10 percent were injured. The number of fatalities is proportionally large, since people over 65 were only 14% of the population. In 2003, the number of older fatalities was even higher- 21%. Previous research has found that for vehicle speeds above 45 mph, pedestrians above age 65 die in about 5 out of 8 crashes. The reason is that older people are frailer, and less likely to recover. It is noteworthy that the engineer identified with advancing the driverless car for Google, Sebastian Thrun, committed his youthful career to this invention after his best friend died in a crash.

MOVING IT TO THE STREETS

In an earlier blog we wrote that Baby Boomers can plan for the future and their retirement by lobbying for the driverless car now. By the time most Boomers need to hang up the car keys, driverless cars could be on the road. The real impediments are the legal warp and insurance vacuums. So, for those with a vision for aging in suburbia, a lobbying effort needs to take place. These vehicles have untold potential to improve personal transportation and ensure mobility for aging suburbanites.

There is a lot to worry about in old age. The driverless car will not solve all problems of transportation, and it will surely introduce new ones. Nonetheless, the driverless car could take some issues off the table when aging-in-place means less worry about reckless drivers speeding through the neighborhood, fewer problems crossing a busy street on foot before the light changes, or attending to grandchildren who might be playing ball, too near the busy road.