Whatever Happened to the Starter Home?

Today in some parts of the country there is hardly anything on the market for under $300,000 resembling the American starter home of the last 70 years. In Raleigh, N.C., entering this weekend there were 17 such single-family homes with at least two bedrooms listed for sale. Across the Denver metro, there were six; around Salt Lake City, three.

In Houston, Felecia Ellis has been driving around on lunch breaks from a dental clinic looking for such a home in the $200,000-$250,000 range.

“Driving through a neighborhood, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is a beautiful home, I know I can afford it,’” Ms. Ellis said. Then she pulls out her phone in the hopeful ritual of the first-time home buyer. The answer in the listing, more often than not, is that, in fact, she can’t afford it.

“And I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” she said. “‘This house is $425,000.’”

The starter home has always done a lot of work. It builds equity, creates stability, gives shelter from landlords and inflation. It has been an incubator of small businesses and community institutions like day care centers. And in an earlier form and time, it was more adaptable. Just add a bathroom when indoor plumbing arrived, a second unit to collect rental income, a garage once cars became common.

“It’s flexible, it’s malleable, and it allows for improvement, investment and change over time,” said Marta Gutman, dean of the City College of New York’s Spitzer School of Architecture.

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