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Here Comes the Neighborhood

When it comes to a home, bigger is not always better, but that seems to be what Americans want anyways.

It’s an American obsession. When gas prices spike, there is a temporary interest in energy-efficient cars, but after they fall, SUVs and pickup trucks are all the rage, again.

The same thing occurs within the housing market. In the 1970s in some swank Massachusetts neighborhoods almost every new home was deemed a McMansion, which was a humorous reference to McDonald’s restaurants, implying the homes were built quickly and cheaply.

Indeed, the building seemed quick, but these homes looked anything but cheap. These were luxury homes with large rooms and huge picture windows. Photo spreads of their kitchens would all do nicely in interior design magazines. Only the most modern appliances would do. Many had home theaters to fit the new norm of large screen TVs.

They seemed well beyond the proportions of homes needed, given the average size of the American family, which is 2.58 persons, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But up they went, filing neighborhoods with glorious, tony homes that took hard hits when the housing bubble burst in 2007.

In the midst of one of these neighborhoods, my eldest sister found herself in a serious pickle. She had purchased what seemed to be the smallest three-story home ever built. The landing on the first floor was almost as large as the living room, which was modest at best. There was a bathroom and a small den on the first floor, as well, and it was a bathroom in which you could lean and touch all four walls without moving your feet.

The small kitchen was the only legitimate room in the basement, although there was a closet-sized niche for a washer and a dryer and a space under the stairs for shoes and coats. In theory, this was a mud-room. On the third floor, there were two bedrooms, as I recall, including my sister’s room, which was not much larger than her queen-sized bed.

In this tiny home, my sister lived frugally, only know she was becoming surrounded by a sudden flurry of building with one modern mansion after another blooming like mushrooms in what used to be wood lots.

In her defense, I will say that my sister did not take on her home expansion just to keep up with the neighbors. First came along a husband, who was probably a little too tall for the accommodations. Next came an adopted daughter, who was predictably too spry and springy for the accommodations.

Do you want to test your marriage? Adding to your home is one way to do it, especially given the odd layout of my sister’s home. Out of necessity (in part to keep the home out of designated swampland), it was decided to make a modest addition to every floor of the house, rather than just add to the basement or the basement and the first floor.

That meant removing one entire side of a three-story house. If this doesn’t test your marriage, nothing will.

Suffice to say quickly that contractor insurance coverage is probably the second question you ask a builder before he or she begins to remove an entire wall to your home. (After maybe price and “can you do it?” that is.)

Requiring insurance coverage is basic enough to ask for proof that the coverage exists. Contractors should have general liability insurance, commercial vehicle insurance and business owners insurance. Without these, you could be putting yourself at risk when someone works on your home.

What else is required to remove one side of a three-story home? It takes vision, nerve and scaffolding. Without either of those, my sister would have moved 15 years ago, when the project was done.

Did she keep up with the neighbors? It turns out she did not. Her home is still the most modest house in the neighborhood, where developers were remarkably adept at keeping the trees in place as they erected these very extravagant homes. That saved the feel of the place, so that the temptation to say, “There goes the neighborhood,” seems out of place. In my sister’s case it was the neighborhood that arrived.


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