By Amy Moeller | April 20, 2015 | Home & Real Estate
Why are district residents foregoing renovation for new builds? Five experts discuss.
The group begins the conversation as they await the first course.
Permits issued for new single-family builds in the District have increased by as much as 28 percent per year since 2009. To find out what’s behind this long-lasting trend, Capitol File gathered key industry experts for lunch at Summer House Santa Monica at Pike & Rose. Banks Development Company’s Michael Banks, Jones & Boer Architects’ Wouter Boer, Washington Fine Properties’ Daryl Judy, TTR Sotheby’s Alexandra Thomas, and J. Lambeth & Company’s Ann Lambeth talked hot neighborhoods, finding lots, and the new aesthetic.
Have you noticed the increase in clients wanting to build new inside the city?
Michael Banks: In my experience, clients [house hunt] for a year or so—they don’t set out to build. They’re looking for a house that fits their family in an established neighborhood that they like, and they lose steam and get frustrated. After a year or so, they start considering renovating or building it new. It’s an organic process.
Wouter Boer: When I first started working here in 2003, most of our work was out near Potomac or McLean. Now most of our work is in the city, tearing down houses and building them new. There’s a big shift from the perception of DC being a bit [stiff] to it being a cool place to live with a great vibe.
Are total teardowns more common than renovations?
Boer: Usually the whole house is gone. Often, to do a major renovation or addition, [the expense compared to building new] is a wash. So why not build a new house?
Banks: And then you get exactly what you want.
Ann Lambeth: And you don’t discover other potential issues—in wiring or the plumbing.
FROM LEFT: Daryl Judy, Wouter Boer, Alexandra Thomas, and Ann Lambeth.
Let’s talk about the aesthetic of these homes.
Boer: DC is a beautiful city. In other cities, especially in the ’70s, people were tearing down historic buildings and building modern things, which in that era weren’t great—in Pittsburgh you see it. DC was saved from that. From the historic point of view, DC has a very strong, traditional aesthetic. People want houses that fit in, but when you walk through the door they want it to be modern. People are afraid of having that idiosyncratic house in the neighborhood.
Alexandra Thomas: In Dupont or Logan Circle there are these new developments—old row houses that builders have gutted and built up—with basically new construction inside, yet you have the old façade. Those are really popular. Buyers now love these older houses where the façade is very charming and historic but then the interior is slick.
Lambeth: We’re starting to look at the “new traditional.” I think everybody is over [Midcentury Modern], yet we don’t want to go back to gold-gilded bergères—we might want a bergère, but cleaned up, with a natural wood finish. You’ll see damask, a classic pattern, but now with a cleaned-up background so you simply have the beautiful damask forms. It’s a more modern traditional that mixes [the old] in. As with architecture, you mix these things together and that becomes your own aesthetic.
Alexandra mentioned that everyone wants to be able to run their houses from their phones.
Boer: That’s the thing with trying to get all of that stuff in an old house….
Banks: You’re going to run into problems, whereas with a new house, you get all of that technology from the start.
Lambeth: I think the downturn in 2008 made everybody value more of what they want and have. Rather than just saying, “Bigger is better,” they’re really thinking, What is it that I really value? Do I really need five other bedrooms or maybe two and one could be an office? You have to think about more than just huge square footage.
Daryl Judy: It goes back to lifestyle, walkability, and green living. When you look at McMansions, you ask, Where’s the wine cellar going to be? Where’s the gym going to be? Where’s the movie theater going to be? [In the city,] we want to walk to the movie theater, the gym, and the wine store—we don’t want all of that in the house. It’s a function of cost, and also of having a smaller footprint.
What neighborhoods are in high demand?
Judy: There’s a lot of talk about Logan Circle and Georgetown, but really, Bloomingdale and Eckington, Capitol Hill, Shaw, Brookland, and AU Park are all hot—Chevy Chase DC is hot.
How do clients find the right lot?
Banks: The best thing you can do is drive through the neighborhoods that you like with a camera, find houses that could be renovated or taken down, and research. Write a letter [to the homeowner] and say why you want to be there and why you like that property.
Judy: I just had that happen last night with someone I’m working with. They were going to sell eventually; they got a handwritten letter, and now they have [a buyer]. Thomas: I’ve done it for clients. Everybody wants a deal, so homeowners are getting letters from every real estate agent and developer in DC now. It was probably more effective a few years ago.
Banks: The big challenge is finding the property. The easy part is building. On site, neighbors will approach us and say, “What do you think our property is worth? Do you have anybody who’s interested?” A lot of deals have been done that way.
This must make for drastic price differences for homes of similar size on the same street.
Judy: I don’t think we’re a city so focused on price per square foot, because some builders are building really high-end, special things. I told someone last night, “You want a comp that will substantiate this price—you’re not going to find it. But if you think it’s going to be here next week, you’re wrong.”
Banks: That’s refreshing to hear, because appraisers come in, and I’m like, “Please don’t compare our square footage to the next builder’s.” Thomas: The quality of finishes isn’t half as nice as what you’re using.
Boer: People are educated, and they understand it; there are a lot of informed buyers out there.
Banks: Building a house is hard, but if you can go through that year, year-and-a-half process, you’ve created a great asset. Whether you stay forever or not, you’ve created something special. Banks Development Company, 301-652-4200; Jones & Boer Architects, 202-332-1200; Daryl Judy, 202-380-7219; Alexandra Thomas, 202-725-2545; Ann Lambeth, 202-646-1774
photography by Dominique Fierro (lambeth, salaD, banks); robert C. lautman (house)