Millennials Want Houses, but They Don't Want What Boomers Are Selling

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Nobody wants this anymore. Too many gables, too many rooms. (Photo: Susan Law Cain/Shutterstock)

For every article saying that millennials don't want to live in the suburbs, there's another post about how having kids and looking for schools changes everything. "Millennials are not moving en masse to metros with dense big cities, but away from them," write planners Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox. They claim they are leaving New York and Los Angeles for Houston and Dallas, as well as Charlotte, Phoenix and Nashville. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones picks up the story:

... overall, millennials don't prefer cities any more than any previous generation. Nor have they given up cars, which they own at about the same rate as every generation has since the '70s. When they grow up and have kids they've mostly moved into the suburbs and bought SUVs and minivans, just like their parents and grandparents did.

But it's not necessarily because they want to; they really have no choice. As we noted earlier, it's almost impossible to build new housing in most cities. As Angie Schmitt notes in Streetsblog, "cities have not been able to produce new housing at nearly the scale of suburban areas in the sun belt, where the constraints on construction are practically non-existent." What housing there is costs a fortune because of high demand.

Attractive Housing for Millennials

When they do look at the suburbs, they don't buy what people are selling. At the high end, Candace Taylor of the Wall Street Journal describes how tastes in houses have changed. Many baby boomers built large houses in the exurbs, but...

Tastes — and access to credit — have shifted dramatically since the early 2000s. These days, buyers of all ages eschew the large, ornate houses built in those years in favor of smaller, more-modern looking alternatives, and prefer walkable areas to living miles from retail.

Taylor notes that tastes have changed too.

Design trends have shifted radically in the past decade. That means a home with crown moldings, ornate details and Mediterranean or Tuscan-style architecture can be a hard sell, while properties with clean lines and open floor plans get snapped up.

It's not just the multimillion dollar houses, either. Kim Palmer describes the situation in the Twin Cities in the Star Tribune, following a young couple who want "a small house in a bike-friendly Minneapolis neighborhood." They actually made offers over asking on five houses before they scored.

The couple, both 29, share one car, which they try to use as little as possible, so they wanted easy access to bike routes and public transportation. Because they're concerned about climate change and try to limit their carbon footprint, they looked for a small house with a compact yard.

Meanwhile, not far away, the baby boomers can't sell their suburban houses. One couple spent $20,000 on upgrades and didn't get a single offer in six months on the market. Palmer describes what she calls "an imbalance in the housing market":

Millions of millennials are entering prime home-buying age, creating an intense demand for starter homes in popular urban neighborhoods. At the same time, millions of baby boomers are trying to downsize from the homes where they raised their families, creating a supply of big suburban homes. But tastes and lifestyles have shifted in the decades since many of those homes were built.

Tastes Change

boomer houses aren't what millennials want
There may be a sidewalk, but where does it lead? Millennials want walkable communities, not just a cul-de-sac. (Photo: Susan Law Cain/Shutterstock)

Tastes really have changed; I when practiced as an architect, my developer clients said they couldn't sell a modern house. And even if people liked modern, they worried about resale value. Now, it's hard to sell a traditional design. "Millennials gravitate to clean lines, casual living and open floor plans, and view many baby boomers’ homes as too big, too formal and too traditional, with unnecessary rooms and details."

A lot of baby boomers are hoping to cash in on their real estate, but they may have a long wait. Some municipalities are changing zoning bylaws to eliminate single-family zoning, which will promote redevelopment and duplexing, but that's a long, hard battle. Meanwhile, developers and planners aren't sitting around waiting; they're adapting to the new market. In her book, "Radical Suburbs," Amanda Kolson Hurley notes that the suburbs are evolving to meet these changes.

Already, some suburban jurisdictions are adapting to new realities, transforming themselves into "urban 'burbs" with pedestrian downtowns, light-rail lines, and new forms of housing. This conscious urbanization is savvy in terms of meeting younger people's preferences, but it’s also the only environmentally responsible course.

That young couple in Minneapolis? They're not buying a starter house. They don't want too much space. Palmer writes:

The house’s small size — about 800 square feet — was a plus, not a minus. "I wanted it to be manageable, streamlined," Kristen said. "I didn’t want to be saddled with an outrageous mortgage." ... "I never plan on getting a big or fancy house," Jake said. "I’m scarred by the recession."

There is indeed an "imbalance in the housing market." Many young people want a more urban style of living, even when they live in the suburbs. But they don't want what their parents' generation is selling, and if developers keep listening, they'll just shop elsewhere.