Choosing the location of the family home can be the most important decision that homeowners make and the most important decision that a real estate salesperson can help them make. This will affect the family’s happiness by playing a major role in shaping its life-style. From a financial point of view, people profit from an investment in a house, in a community and in a neighborhood that are growing in value, community spirit and desirability.
Most families are attracted to a region because of available employment, proximity to relatives or the climate. It is beyond the scope of this guide to present the relative advantages and disadvantages of the many regions of the United States . This section, however, will explore the factors that should be taken into consideration when selecting a community, neighborhood and site within a specific area.
Economic Base of the Community
Much of the economic health of a community depends on its economic base. This consists of those industries, businesses and institutions that ex port goods and services out of the community. It is the money received by them from outside the community that supports the non-basic employers who provide local goods and services.
Economists generally agree that the higher the ratio of basic employment to non-basic employment, the better the economy of the community. Another factor that also must be considered is the diversity and stability of the basic employers.
The community should have a variety of basic employers, including several different industries, businesses and government agencies (regional, state or national). The base is further enhanced if the community has educational facilities that draw students from a wide area or if it is a regional trade center, a farm trade center, a tourist trade center or a transportation hub.
With a diversity of basic employers, the economic health is not tied to one source that, if it should fail, would have a major depressing impact on the community. If the homebuyer has a choice of locating in any one of several communities in an area, he or she should pick the one with the best economic base, if all other things of importance are equal.
Government and Municipal Services
Municipal government affects all the neighborhoods in the community in a fundamental way. A stable administration contributes solidarity to the neighborhoods in the form of well-written and strictly enforced codes, a good inspection program (building, plumbing, etc.), effective zoning regulations, efficient fire and police protection and maintenance (Street re pairing and cleaning, garbage pickup).
Municipal services also contribute substantially to the value of a neighborhood. Is municipal trash and garbage collection available? Is its cost included in property taxes or is it a separate expense for the home owner? How often is the trash picked up and how far must it be carried to the pickup point? Street cleaning and snowplowing services also should be scrutinized carefully.
The quality of police and fire protection is not easy to evaluate, but the quantity is not hard to ascertain, and quantity can be important. Usually, the more vehicles the police and fire departments have, the larger the departments are and, theoretically, the better equipped to cover the city and its neighborhoods. The quality of police and fire protection can be checked by talking to local residents. A check of fire-insurance rates in the area is one way to evaluate the quality of the fire department.
Utilities are discussed in more detail later in the guide. Here, however, it is appropriate to point out that the ready availability of utilities is a major plus factor in any neighborhood.
Public and private schools are of immediate interest to all families with children. Even homeowners who have no children should take an interest in the local schools for the future buyer of their house may have children and may be concerned about schools. When the quality of education de clines, it often is accompanied by a decline in house values. The quality of educational facilities is one of the principal reasons for the exodus of the affluent from the core cities to the suburbs.
Finding out the name and location of the school that serves the neighborhood is the way to begin assessing the educational system. Home buyers should determine whether a school bus is necessary and, if so, available. A visit to the school will indicate the condition of the facilities. The buildings should be in good repair. The school should have an indoor gym and a spacious playground outside and should serve hot lunches at noon. Whether or not the school, for lack of funds or facilities, holds double sessions or is scheduled to provide them in the foreseeable future also is significant.
A call to the superintendent of schools will answer one very important question: How many dollars are allocated per student? The more money spent per pupil, the better the teachers and facilities are likely to be. Another general rule is that high property taxes are a sign of good schools. If these taxes are notably low, the local schools may not be in especially good shape unless industry in the area is helping to defray school costs by paying a large share of local taxes.
Convenience and Recreation
A variety of conveniences, such as food stores, laundries and repair shops, should be readily accessible in the community, yet they must not inflict a commercial atmosphere on the residential neighborhoods. Most people do not want to travel too far for shopping. On the other hand, they do not want to live right next door to a bustling shopping center. In addition, a direct route to a shopping area passing through a neighbor hood would not be attractive to many people.
People differ widely in their specific requirements for recreational facilities and services that are within walking distance and those that are located a little further from their homes in the surrounding community. A community can be planned well yet still not contain every kind of convenience, service or recreation. The prospective homeowner must decide which of those services are most important to him or her and his or her family and then determine if the community provides easy access to them.
The list of such services is practically endless, but it might include some of the following: airport, gas station, movie theater, concert hail, art museum, skating rink, sports stadium, swimming pool, golf course, doctor’s office, dentist’s office, hospital, park, playground, river or lake, shopping center and employment centers. The important factor to be aware of is not necessarily how far away any of these may be, but rather how long it takes to get to them, either by car or by public transportation.
Local taxes, too, may be important. If they are comparable to those of the surrounding communities, they play little or no role in the area selection process. If they are substantially lower than those in the general area, they may attract people, and if they are substantially higher, they may repel potential new residents.
Definition of Neighborhood
Traditionally, a residential neighborhood has been defined as an area within a community that contains houses of approximately the same age, quality, size and value range. Often the architectural styles of the houses also are similar or are styles that complement one another. In the traditional definition, residents of a neighborhood have about the same earning power and the same interests and concerns as the majority of their neighbors. In other words, a neighborhood gives a noticeable impression• of unity, exemplified by the appearance of the structures and by the people who live in them.
Houses are not necessarily the only structures in the residential neighborhood. Also found may be neighborhood services, such as retail stores and professional offices, and community facilities, such as parks, recreational areas and schools. All these are considered part of the residential neighborhood when they are located within the neighborhood boundaries and when they serve its residents (although they may serve residents from other neighborhoods as well).
The new neighborhoods created by redevelopment in the cities and found in planned urban communities in the suburbs do not fit this traditional definition, however. These neighborhoods consist of a more heterogeneous blend of houses and people. Old is mixed with new, big with small, rich with poor. Here it is possible to mix residential, commercial and industrial uses and still maintain a harmonious neighborhood.
Boundaries and Streets
Neighborhood boundaries usually are quite definite. Expressways, railroad tracks, rivers, hills, the city’s edge—all can serve as neighborhood limits. A boundary can be created when land use changes, for example, when a commercial or industrial zone is built up next to a residential neighborhood. Sometimes neighborhoods blend into one another and have no particular boundaries at all. Explicit boundaries, however, are usually a favorable sign. They help preserve the neighborhood’s unity, and unity, in turn, helps preserve real estate values.
Boundaries also make it easier to determine the size of a neighbor hood, although size has no special significance unless a neighborhood covers an unusually large area. Very large neighborhoods easily lose their’ cohesiveness and character.
Streets are the entrances and exits of the neighborhood. They cut into it, divide it up, provide a way to travel within it and afford access to the neighborhood’s houses. If the streets are wide, curving and tree-lined, they can be a true source of beauty.
Streets, however, are especially significant because of their inherent quality of danger. In some older neighborhoods, the effects of poor planning can be seen where streets run in grids or plain, square blocks. When streets are laid out in grids, they are all about equally convenient and city traffic tends to spill through the neighborhood. This is especially true where there are traffic lights along an adjoining boulevard. In such a neighborhood, traffic can be a hazard that impedes communication and diminishes the feeling of unity.
Contemporary planned neighborhoods, on the other hand, make use of curving streets, cul-de-sacs with generous turnaround space and circular drives as deterrents to through traffic. Ideally, expressways and boulevards outside the immediate neighborhood (but easy to reach from local streets) should handle the heavy traffic. Traffic within the neighborhood should be primarily local and should move easily and slowly.
Certain physical characteristics of neighborhoods may be considered desirable by some people and undesirable by others. While a person’s individual taste may not agree with the opinions expressed here, he or she must remember that property values are governed by the tastes of the majority.
Paved streets, shade trees, an attractive view and, in urban areas, sidewalks and curbs usually are desirable characteristics. The preferred topography is a rolling terrain so that the whole neighborhood is on higher ground than the surrounding area. Values tend to go up with the height of the land in most areas. Curved and dead-end streets that are lit and have Street signs are what people desire.
On the other hand, people generally do not like very flat land or excessively rugged terrain without reasonable access. They worry when they live on straight streets that carry through traffic and appear to present traffic hazards. Neighborhoods with flooding danger, fire hazards, stagnant ponds, marshes, poor surface drainage and excess dampness are understandably unpopular.
Urban neighborhoods offer certain advantages over suburban neighbor hoods. They are situated near metropolitan centers and provide easy access to theaters, museums, special schools, libraries and large medical centers. These are the kinds of cultural and intellectual institutions that usually only a city can support. People whose cultural or social needs are more specialized or whose natures respond to the excitement and complexity offered by the city probably will be happiest in an urban neighbor hood. Necessary shopping and services usually can be found close by in urban neighborhoods. In many city neighborhoods, the yards and houses have had a chance to develop naturally and no longer have the “just planted” look that a development yard and house may have.
While life in the city offers these advantages and personal satisfactions to many people, city neighborhoods also have their drawbacks. Although a few urban neighborhoods were planned, most were not. Parking and traffic congestion can present big problems. Houses are likely to be large, but old, and may contain outdated fixtures and mechanical systems. In addition, most cities have sociological problems that are not nearly so prevalent in the suburbs.
Many older neighborhoods (and indeed, cities) in the United States have grown up in a haphazard, uncontrolled manner. If some of these neighborhoods look well or work well, it is probably more because of good luck than good planning. Some cities have taken steps to revitalize their neighborhoods through renovation and new construction, with the guidance of city planners and redevelopment agencies. Strong evidence suggests that such efforts bring good results.
Neighborhood Life Cycles
Every neighborhood, whether urban or suburban, passes through several phases in its life cycle. The first is a period in which it grows most rapidly. Home buyers are attracted to it and prices are on the rise. When prices reach a more or less steady state, the neighborhood enters its second stage. This stable period may last for up to 40 to 50 years.
Finally and inevitably, the neighborhood enters a period of decline as newer areas beginning their own patterns of growth become more attractive to residents. Now the neighborhood’s houses may become accessible to a lower-income group less able to spend money on maintenance and improvements, with a resulting deterioration of the neighborhood. Houses may be converted to other uses, such as apartments, boarding houses or offices. They may be completely razed to make way for large apartment or office buildings. In any case, the character of the neighbor hood changes drastically.
The period of decline may end when the neighborhood changes to another land use and a new neighborhood is developed or when it experiences a renewal period. This may be caused by a change in one or more of the economic, social, physical or governmental forces. For example, expansion of commercial activities in the community may increase the demand for housing in the neighborhood.
Neighborhood rejuvenation also can result from organized community activities, such as redevelopment programs, organized rebuilding and historical renovation. The rebirth of an older neighborhood often is caused by a combination of these factors, some of which are a result of planning and outside aid and some simply because of changing preferences and life-styles.
After the rebirth of an older neighborhood, the life cycle may be repeated in which a period of stability and eventually a period of decline may occur unless, again, a change in the forces that affect desirability and marketability takes place.
Because neighborhoods are dynamic by nature, homebuyers must be able to tell what stage a given neighborhood is in. The first factor to check is population. The growth in population for each year in the past five or ten years is a good indication of where the neighborhood is in the cycle. If the population is rising, the neighborhood probably is on the way up. The population also should be studied in terms of the occupations represented in the neighborhood. A healthy percentage of junior executives, foremen, skilled craftsmen and professional people usually is a good sign.
Land prices in the neighborhood also should be checked. If they are consistently rising, the neighborhood probably is in a stage of growth. Another sign of neighborhood upsurge is the scarcity of vacant houses. If the turnover of houses is slow, residents obviously are satisfied.
Several early warning signs foretell a neighborhood’s period of de cline. The population may consist of high percentages of unskilled workers or workers representing only one industry. Another sign may be a high percentage of older couples who are longtime residents and whose children are grown and have left home. An area where the development of available vacant land has stopped and where large houses are being converted into apartments and rooming houses also is probably a bad risk. In addition, factors such as absentee owners, houses in bad repair, houses in foreclosure, an overabundance of “for sale” signs, a decrease in rental rates and a breakdown in the enforcement of zoning regulations and deed restrictions often warn of an impending period of decline.
When a new transportation system, such as a throughway or a sub way, or a new industry is introduced into an area, it is certain to have a major impact on any nearby residential neighborhood. Often it is difficult to tell in advance whether the impact will stimulate neighborhood growth, slow it down or reverse it. For instance, a throughway that pro vides new access to a metropolitan area may make new job markets avail able to residents, but if the new highway cuts off the neighborhood from its own city center, negative ramifications will occur. A neighborhood, in a situation like this, probably will benefit and suffer at the same time. The question is whether the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages; the final answer sometimes is not immediately evident.
Quality of Neighborhood Life
How does the neighborhood look? Are community areas well kept and clean? Do yards and houses reflect ongoing interest and care by their owners? The way a neighborhood looks tells a lot about the people who live there. Talking to those people is another good way to learn about their neighborhood. They can tell what they feel are the neighborhood’s special attractions and defects. People usually are willing to discuss neighborhood pros and cons with an interested listener.
People actually can do more to make or break a neighborhood than anything else can. The people who live in a good neighborhood do much to hold it together by their shared interest in events and conditions that affect it and sometimes by their attempts to change these conditions. Underlying this practical relationship is a deeper basis for neighborhood unity: people’s acceptance, consideration and acknowledgment of each other as members of a living community.
Taking walks around a neighborhood at different hours of the day can provide a feeling for the quality of neighborhood life and uncover the presence of any adverse influences or nuisances. For instance, is there a lot of noise? If so, what kind of noise is it? If the noise is made by children playing outside, it could be music to the ears of a buyer with four children of his or her own. But if the noise is from a commercial airliner whose flight pattern lies directly over or near the neighborhood, a person should know about that before he or she buys.
What about smoke and odors? Some of the typical offenders are factories, stockyards, rendering plants, garbage-disposal areas, dumps, stables, kennels and chemical plants. The pollutant may be many blocks away, but winds can carry smoke and odors quite a distance. Pollution should be checked under various weather conditions or at various times of the day or week.
Some additional elements that tend to decrease house values when they are located close by are heavy industry, mills, vacant houses, air ports, railroad tracks, cemeteries, funeral homes, hotels and motels, utility wires and pipelines, outdoor advertising billboards, hospitals, fire stations, apartment houses, commercial buildings and taverns. Of course, having these services and businesses a relatively short distance away from a residential neighborhood can be a convenient plus factor.
Neighborhoods that exclude members of minority races and religions soon may be so scarce that a discussion about them will be of academic interest only.
The two final blows that ended any legal segregation were struck by Congress and the Supreme Court in 1968. Prior to that, various local and state governments had passed fair-housing and other similar legislation that made many forms of segregation illegal in many areas. Various federal laws and agency regulations also prohibited discrimination. The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS (NAR) has taken many positive steps through its Code of Ethics and other regulations to encourage equal opportunities in housing. Through its publications, committees and speakers, the association seeks to provide leadership in fair housing both to its own membership and to the public.
In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. The stated policy was “...to provide, within constitutional limitations, for fair housing throughout the United States.” The Supreme Court, in a case known as Jones v. Mayer, ruled that a federal statute passed in 1866 still was valid and enforceable. This statute stated in very clear language that it was illegal to discriminate against anyone and that all citizens had the same rights to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey any property.
During the 1950s, several articles appeared in national magazines re porting that real estate agents and others made alleged high profits through the tactics of blockbusting, scare selling and panic selling. Ac cording to the articles, it was possible to convince the residents of a non- integrated neighborhood that the neighborhood was about to become integrated, that values would decline and, therefore, that residents should sell before it was too late. If the panic selling developed, these articles said, the operators would buy the properties and sell them to members of minority groups at an excessive profit.
While some unfortunate incidents of scare-tactic selling by unethical people both within and outside the real estate field have occurred, the NAR does not condone any of these actions. The association’s Code of Ethics condemns such practices and the association acts against any members who participate in questionable selling practices.
The consensus of numerous studies conducted and reported on in appraisal, banking and economic journals and other publications is that through harassment, scare tactics and excessive pressure, owners may be convinced to sell their properties below the market value. If enough of these sales take place, values in the neighborhood will become depressed. What soon happens in most cases, however, is that the properties are re sold at higher prices, the depressed selling stops and values return to normal.
As previously discussed, when a neighborhood reaches the third stage of its life cycle, values will decline, although the rate of decline may be fast or slow. Neighborhoods in this cycle are characterized by the in flux of residents of a lower income, education and social status than those who formerly lived there. It is overly simplistic to blame this natural decline of value on integration.
Nuisance Laws and Litigation
Hundreds of years ago when English common law was being formed, the idea developed that one landowner could not conduct obnoxious activities on his or her land that would adversely affect his or her neighbor. Five basic principles of land-use control developed that still hold true to day. While these principles are fairly consistent throughout the country, enforcement procedures vary from state to state.
The first principle is that a right of action can be taken against some body who causes any physical nuisance to cross from his or her property onto a neighbor’s property. Typical physical nuisances include the danger• of fire or explosion, all types of air and water pollution and excess noises and vibrations. With the current emphasis on ecology, an increased awareness of the damage caused by these nuisances has occurred.
The second legal principle is that these nuisances are an invasion of property rights and, to be aggrieved, a person must have the property right to start with. It would seem that because tenants, like landowners, have property rights, they might be able to seek remedy. Not much legal history is available, however, to judge their success to date.
The third principle is that there is no automatic right to stop a nuisance. Courts must weigh the landowner’s rights to enjoy the use of his or her property against the adjoining property owner’s right not to be annoyed. Because many acceptable land uses create some nuisances, the courts must be convinced that the nuisance is severe enough to warrant interference with the landowner’s right to use his or her property. Every time something burns, smoke is created; noise is all around; and most restaurants would have to close if odors had to be confined within property lines.
The fourth principle is that the courts consider a judgment against a nuisance to be a drastic one. These court orders, when they are issued, re quire the landowner to cease creating the nuisance or at least to modify his or her action. The courts offer the owner no compensation for the de creased use of the land. These judgments, therefore, are almost never awarded before the activity that Creates the nuisance actually takes place and unless it can be proved that it really is a substantial nuisance.
Fifth and finally, because the courts consider the remedy against nuisances to be drastic, they have insisted on maintaining full control and have resisted actions by legislatures to make laws defining what constitutes a nuisance.
Despite the difficulty of proving a nuisance case in court, several good examples of courts stopping nuisances under these common-law principles do exist. Some examples are requiring sport parks and commercial users to stop shining their lights on adjoining property, producing excess noise with their public address systems and creating excess dust by using unpaved areas for parking. In a series of actions, airports have been required to alter their activities, flight paths and schedules where nuisances have been created. In one interesting case, a funeral parlor was held to be a nuisance when it was constructed in the middle of a beautiful single-family historical neighborhood in Litchfield, Connecticut.
Quite possibly, the number of such actions to stop nuisances may in crease as concerned citizens become more aware of the available remedies.
Private covenants are agreements made between property owners to re strict the use of their properties, resulting in mutual advantage. When a restrictive covenant is entered into, each property owner must comply with the covenant’s restrictions. One owner has the right to enforce compliance with the restriction by the other parties to the agreement. Usually, these restrictions are established by a developer of a residential subdivision, by a redevelopment agency or by members of a neighborhood association.
Normally, those who enter into such agreements make them “run with the land,” meaning that the agreement is binding not only on the parties who sign it but also on successive owners.
Covenant laws vary from state to state. Some principles have evolved, however, which have become fairly standard. The most important standard requirement is that notice must be made of the restrictions. Often this is accomplished by making the restriction a part of the deed.
The second principle is that normally the only person who can bring an action to enforce a restrictive covenant is a property owner in the affected area. Another more obscure standard requirement is that the restrictive covenant must concern the real estate itself, although most covenants meet this test.
Finally, the restrictive covenants must be negative in nature rather than affirmative: They can stop the property owners from doing certain things but cannot place a burden on them to take any kind of positive action. At times, the courts have overlooked some or all of these technical principles.
Not all restrictive covenants are enforceable. If, for instance, the court can be convinced that a substantial change has occurred in the neighborhood, it will consider this a valid reason to void the covenants. Racial and religious covenants also are not enforceable.
Despite the problems of enforcement and other shortcomings, restrictive covenants continue to produce a great deal of litigation and are an important method used to control the use of the land.
One of the greatest visual experiences a person can have is from an air plane flying over a major city on a clear night or from the top of the city’s highest building. The strings of multicolored lights from horizon to horizon form patterns of spectacular beauty.
When viewing the vastness of the city, a person feels small and insignificant. The city seems to be of superhuman size; control of its growth seems beyond anyone’s capabilities. Seemingly, no legislation or other act
of man outside of exploding an atomic bomb could make a change.
Fortunately, this is not the case. People are learning how to control their cities and to plan for the future. Today, zoning is the widely accepted
method by which society, in general, controls the use of the land. Zoning is one of the means by which society controls the development of the physical environment.
This was not always so. Zoning was unknown in the nineteenth century, the period in which many cities developed. Up to World War I, the only protections a property owner and the public had were the nuisance laws, private restrictions and building codes.
As a result of this lack of control and planning, cities developed with congested streets, overcrowded buildings, poor light and air and a mixture of uses, each hurting the other. From this disorganization came the deteriorated commercial areas, slums and urban blight of today.
During the 1700s and early 1800s, growth in this country took place primarily in the uncrowded towns and villages and in the farm areas. Many of the houses that were built were two-story detached houses.
By the middle of the 1800s, the growth pattern had shifted to the cities. Streets were lined with row houses and tenements. Multiple-story, single-family houses were lined up side by side on crowded lots. Streets were laid out in checkerboard fashion. Little separation existed between industrial and commercial activities and residential neighborhoods.
In the early 1900s, the cities already were feeling the pains of over crowding, traffic congestion and the infiltration of nonresidential uses into the residential neighborhoods. Uncontrolled social pressures further increased the population density, which resulted in the construction of large apartment houses that occupied almost all of their lots. At the same time, those people with enough money to do so began to flee the cities and move into the newly developing suburbs. This pattern of development still exists today.
In the early 1900s, Los Angeles passed certain laws that controlled the use of the land and Boston enacted several similar regulations. In 1916, New York City passed the first true, comprehensive zoning law.
Included in it were use districts, control of building heights and area coverage regulations. Shortly thereafter, other cities passed similar laws. These laws stood up against many court challenges and by the mid-1920s, their constitutionality, based on the government’s right to use its police power to regulate private property, was well established.
The city zoning regulations of the 1920s, emphasized height regulations and front-yard, side-yard and rear-yard requirements, heavily weighting considerations of light and air in overcrowded city areas.
Then, in the late 1920s, the emphasis of zoning laws gradually changed from fresh air and light considerations to the separation of the actual uses of property from one another. Separate industrial, commercial and residential zones were created. High-density (apartment) residential areas also were segregated from low-density (single-family) residential areas. Many regulations were passed in suburban and semi-rural areas to preserve the residential characteristics of these areas.
Since World War II, a new thrust in city zoning has developed. These newer zoning regulations emphasize direct control of development and design to prevent any further spread of urban congestion and poor building design.
Zoning Goals Today
Today’s goals of planning and zoning for residential areas, which have be come well recognized, are strongly advocated by those who believe that zoning is the best method of land-use control. Unfortunately, there also are other, undeclared goals that some try to accomplish.
Nobody will argue the merit of protecting a residential neighborhood against the hazards of fire and explosion that accompany many industrial and commercial land uses. This can be accomplished through zoning. Protection against the common-law nuisances of excessive noises, lighting, vibrations and pollution also can be included as part of an enforce able zoning regulation.
In addition, a residential neighborhood can be protected, through zoning, against traffic that comes from the outside and does not directly serve the neighborhood. Protection against ugly visual elements, such as garbage dumps and flashing neon billboards, however, often is difficult to achieve through zoning.
All residents in a neighborhood should have adequate light, air and reasonable privacy. This can be accomplished through both specific and general zoning controls that provide protection against congestion and make provisions for open spaces.
People sometimes try to use zoning to protect themselves against change in the form of development and community expansion. They try to accomplish this by increasing minimum-lot requirements to unrealistic sizes and by imposing other requirements that make it impossible to economically develop the land. Social pressures are growing, however, to eliminate the use of zoning laws for these purposes. Ideally, zoning should not be used to stop development but should be used to control it so that school facilities and other necessary municipal services can be expanded in an orderly fashion.
Increasing density and economic and social pressures have strongly influenced communities to find new ways to use land efficiently. Communities are discovering that they must make their own provisions for orderly expansion. In some areas, courts have set aside overly restrictive zoning regulations and state legislatures have investigated regional planning and zoning. These acts possibly could diminish the local community’s right to plan and zone itself. Many communities will retain their right to plan by exploring new methods of land use and integrating them effectively into community life.
One of the first reactions to increasing population and to the cry for more housing was to build several million new houses each year in subdivisions at the edges of urban centers. Later, zoning restrictions became some what relaxed and the apartment boom began. The boom reached its peak during the 1960s when almost half of all housing built was in the form of apartments.
By this time, counter-pressures were building up. Environmentalists backed by concerned citizens, were expressing shock at the way in which some sub-dividers were developing the land. Longtime residents of suburbia also resisted what they considered intrusions in their communities in the forms of apartment buildings and new subdivisions. Opposing these forces were social and economic pressures to decongest the urban centers and to get people out of the cities and into the “fresh air” of the suburbs.
Temporary solutions and compromises to land-use problems were reached, such as improving and controlling subdivisions, requiring better site and building specifications for apartments and better land planning in general. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, several things happened that provided the next decades with better solutions to the problem.
The condominium form of ownership was introduced and the public liked it. With Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgages on condominiums allowed by federal law, the concept spread across the country and condominium projects sprouted like mushrooms. Some condominium statutes provide considerably more protection for the public than do others. Because this guide concerns single-family houses, a more detailed discussion of the complexities, advantages and disadvantages of condominium ownership is omitted.
The condominium has profoundly affected land use and the general housing problem. Up to the 1960s, fee-simple ownership forced architects and land planners to restrict themselves to putting single-unit or multiple- unit dwellings on individual lots. The cooperative form of ownership did exist, but it worked best for urban apartments and never became as popular outside the big cities as the condominium has. The condominium also offered a solution to the problem the sub-divider often encountered when using cluster planning in layouts for apartment communities. The clusters often resulted only in open land that the communities refused to accept and maintain. With condominium ownership, however, the property owners accept the responsibility of maintaining property that, although used by the community, is, in fact, owned by them.
By 1965, cluster-planned subdivisions, condominium ownership and generally well-sited and well-built apartment communities were all firmly established. Now the architects and land planners were free to employ their new, advanced concepts of land use: open spaces, cluster planning and common recreation and park facilities.
One of the earlier developments that helped bring about the acceptance of condominium ownership and the planned-unit development (PUD) was Heritage Village in Southbury, Connecticut. From a 1,000- acre estate, the developer created a beautifully planned urban community. The project was the first PIJD to receive major national publicity. Through national news coverage, people learned what PUDs could offer. They saw that it is possible for a developer to successfully develop a large tract of land with high-density housing.
In Heritage Village, more than 2,500 families live in clustered apartments and town houses in an attractive rural-like setting. Because Heritage Village was a financial success, other developers and lenders were spurred on to produce more large PUDs and more communities were induced to accept them.
The PUD, as it has evolved today, consists of high-density housing, mainly apartments and town houses (often sold as condominiums) and a few single-family dwellings. The residences are grouped into clusters with a substantial amount of remaining land left as open space or developed for recreational purposes.
In its most advanced stage, the PUD actually can be an entire city by itself as in Columbia, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia. In these larger developments (as well as in some smaller PUDs), some of the nonresidential land is used for non-recreational purposes, such as shopping centers, office buildings and industrial plants.
No sooner is a zoning ordinance passed than some property owners, for any number of reasons, try to obtain permission to construct or alter a building contrary to the requirements of the ordinance. They contend that the zoning ordinance imposes a hardship on them and in their particular case they should be permitted to do what they want to do despite the ordinance.
The mechanism for obtaining permission to build something other than that which is permitted varies from area to area. Generally, such an appeal must be taken to a government body, usually the zoning board or the zoning board of appeals.
Hardship is the only basis, in most areas, on which a variance can be granted; economic hardship is not, by law, considered a valid reason. Most people who request a variance will claim that the zoning imposes a severe hardship on them and that granting the variance is almost a matter of life or death. A more objective examination of the facts probably would show that the real question is one of money and that by granting the variance the zoning board will allow the owner to increase his or her profits.
Zoning boards have a long history of granting a substantial number of the variances requested. They do this despite the fact that they are allowing the property owner to do something that his or her neighbors are prohibited from doing. If the zoning ordinance was carefully thought out from its inception, the prohibition, theoretically, would have been for the community’s general good and the purpose of the zoning ordinance would be defeated each time a variance is granted.
The typical zoning code takes into consideration that it is in the community interest to permit certain uses in a zone that do not conform with the predominant permitted use.
For example, a school, religious facility or certain types of local commercial services, such as a drug store or a small food outlet, might be desirable special exceptions for a one-family zone. These exceptions must be carefully controlled, which usually is left to the local zoning board.
The main difference between a variance and a special exception is that to obtain a variance, an owner must prove hardship, which is not necessary to obtain a special exception. A special exception is considered a right of a property owner and usually is spelled out in the zoning regulation. The zoning authority must grant the exception unless it can be shown that the proposed use is detrimental to the neighborhood.
The most significant difference between special-use permits and special exceptions is that the special-use permit is not considered a right of the property owner. To get a special-use permit, a person must prove that a need exists for the use of property that he or she is proposing and that it will be to the community’s advantage to allow the proposed use.
An example of this kind of special use would be the development of shopping centers and automobile service stations at an intersection of a major highway, even though they may not be permitted under the zoning for that specific piece of land. The property owner would appear before the local zoning board and attempt to prove that the proposed use would benefit the community. He or she would have to provide detailed plans to the zoning board, including feasibility and marketing studies. In addition, the property owner usually must submit a technical report on the effect of the proposed land use on traffic circulation and on the surrounding land uses.
Inherent in zoning is that the use of the land is restricted. This tends to create a shortage of land that is available for some types of uses and a surplus of land that is available for other uses. Zoning definitely does not abide by the principle of supply and demand.
Critics of zoning contend that it restricts innovation, produces stereotype developments and reduces the number of imaginative projects that might otherwise have been created. They further claim that because zoning is a legislative function and administrated by politically appointed boards, the legislation and enforcement are highly susceptible to political influence. Critics also point out that extensive red tape in zoning slows down or even stops many building projects.
These are persuasive arguments, for many communities around the country, despite zoning ordinances, have experienced poor development patterns by most standards.
Advocates of non-zoning claim that land values and land uses depend on the land’s natural highest and best use and should not be controlled by what they claim are the sometimes misguided whims of local political appointees.
SITE AND SITE IMPROVEMENTS
Zoning relates a piece of property to the larger community around it, which is important to the homeowner and the real estate professional. Of equal importance are the location of a lot within a neighborhood; its physical characteristics; its relationship to neighboring sites, available utilities and services; the location of the house on the lot; and the site improvements.
If the boundaries of a lot are not readily apparent, steps should be taken to ascertain exactly where they are. The best and most accurate way to get this information is to have a professional survey made and have the surveyor set boundary markers into the ground. The surveyor will work from a legal description found in the deed.
In many situations, the owner or the real estate broker, with this same information, may establish the lot boundaries accurately enough for immediate practical purposes, especially when no construction is contemplated and all the abutting property owners generally agree where the boundaries are or if the boundaries are naturally marked by fences, side walks, streams, walls and other permanent monuments shown on the survey. More and more lending institutions, however, are wisely requiring a survey for security whenever they lend money for a house mortgage.
A title examination will reveal any private deed restrictions that may have been imposed on the property by former owners concerning the use and development of the land. Public restrictions on the use of the land also are imposed by laws, the most common of which are zoning laws, building codes, fire ordinances and health codes.
Whichever is more stringent, the private deed restriction or the public restriction, takes precedence. Generally, to obtain a change in these restrictions is complicated and expensive. If these restrictions appear to impose a hardship, a lawyer familiar with the area and real estate laws would be the logical person to turn to for advice.
Size and Shape of the Site
Lot size is a characteristic on which there seems to be no universal agreement. Many feel that small house lots are substandard and that anything under an acre is inadequate. On the other hand, a great many people feel that large lots require more care than owners wish to provide and that very satisfactory living conditions can be obtained from a well-planned small lot.
Generally, it is agreed that, with the exception of town houses that require a lot only the width of the house, a minimum satisfactory lot is 50 feet wide in the North and 60 to 70 feet in the South and the West. An acceptable layout can be made on a lot as shallow as 90 feet deep if the front-yard setback requirement is only 15 feet and living area is oriented to the rear rather than to the front of the lot.
The Minimum Property Standards for One and Th’o Living Units (MPS) of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) no longer imposes rigid requirements for minimum lot sizes; front-, rear- and side-yard dimensions; and percentage of lot coverage. Now it recognizes that the size, needed parking spaces, recreation and other open-space requirements should be determined by the characteristics of the site, its location, the land cost and the acceptability by the community.
Generally, a minimum front-yard setback of 25 feet is necessary and 50 feet is needed when the house is on a major highway. Side yards of at least 10 feet each improve privacy.
In the past, more lots were rectangular, except where topography made this shape impossible. Because of new thinking in subdivision lay out and street design, many lots now being created are irregular in shape.
Water may be supplied by a well, usually on the site, or by a community water supply. (Wells and water-supply systems are discussed in Section 8.) If a well is needed along with a waste-disposal system, the lot must be large enough to permit at least a 50-foot separation between the well and a septic tank and a 100-foot to 150-foot separation between a well and a cesspool or leaching fields. Obviously, the minimum lot sizes discussed previously would not be sufficient under these conditions.
The requirements for water storage, main capacity and pressure in a public system usually are set according to what is needed for adequate fire protection rather than what is needed for domestic water use. Mini mum fire-insurance rates are obtained when a house is located within 500 feet of a hydrant. No public system, therefore, should have hydrants more than 1,000 feet apart. A better standard is from 300 to 500 feet apart. A domestic water supply will operate on as low as 20 pounds per square inch of pressure, but hydrants require 50 to 60 pounds per square inch.
Water mains may be located under the street, under the grass strip between the street and the sidewalk or under the grass on the house side of the sidewalk.
The best method of sewerage disposal is a community system hooked up to a public-treatment plant. (Septic tanks and other on-site methods are discussed in Section 8.) When an on-site system is used, the lot should be large enough to accommodate all the elements of the system. How large an on-site system is needed depends on the soil conditions. If the soil is extremely poor, the lot must be very large to provide an alternate location for the leaching field should the original one clog up and need to be replaced. Provisions also must be made to handle the increased amount of water runoff that is produced after a lot is built up and some of it covered with pavement.
The best method is a separate storm-water drainage system tied into separate storm sewers in the street. The next most desirable method is to channel the water into a natural water course. If neither of these alternatives is possible, the water should drain off the land at the point where it was naturally doing so before the house was built.
Electricity should be brought to an area via power lines strung across the rear of the lots and connected to houses by underground service lines. This is a substantial visual improvement over the old method of bringing the power lines overhead along the street and connecting them to the house with three overhead wires. Compromises that are offered by some utility companies are a combined wire that wraps the three wires together so they look like just one wire or an underground connection from over head wires in front of the house.
Gas usually is piped through mains under the street from a public- utility company to the house site. The gas either may be manufactured locally by the utility company or piped in from the gas field by long-distance gas transmission lines. The gas main is tapped into with a pipe that runs from it to the house.
House Location and Orientation
Unfortunately, the vast majority of houses are poorly located and oriented on their lots. Planners and developers have been very slow in determining the best way to locate houses for maximum livability. The public has been even slower. As long as the public will buy houses lined up in a row facing the street despite the proven advantages of alternate methods of site planning, this is what developers will continue to build. Figure 1.1 compares the recommended house placement on a lot with an older method of placement.
Just as a house should be divided into zones, so should a lot. The three zones of a house lot include the public zone, the private zone and the service zone.
The public zone is the area visible from the street—usually the land in front of the house. A vast expanse of well-trimmed front lawn and a long driveway are important to many people. A large front lawn, however, involves high maintenance costs, lack of recreational use of this area and high snow-removal costs. One argument supporting a large front yard is that setting the house back from the street reduces noise. This, however, is not true. For all practical purposes, noise 100 feet from the street is the same as noise 25 feet away.
If avoiding highway noise is particularly important, however, the house should be at least a mile from a busy highway. If this is not possible, street noise can be reduced substantially by orienting the house away from the street and eliminating or reducing the number and the size of the windows on the street side.
An important rule of good house location on the lot is to keep the front-yard public area small. This is accomplished by bringing the house as far forward on the lot as possible. If this is not possible, then some type of screening, such as fencing or shrubs, should be considered.
The service zone consists of the sidewalks and driveways plus trash storage and clothes-drying areas. Like the public area, the service zone should be kept as small as possible.
The private zone is where the children play, where the patio is located and where the vegetable gardens grow. This zone, of course, should be large.
A well-designed house is built to take advantage of the fact that in the hot summer months, the sun rises in the northeast, travels in a high arc across the sky and sets toward the northwest. In the cold winter months, it rises in the southeast, travels across the sky in a low arc and sets in the southwest. As a result, the south side of the house, when protected by a large roof overhang, will receive much more sun in the winter than in the summer. Figure 1.2 illustrates this effect. The opposite is true of the east and west sides of the house. If all other factors, such as street location, topography and view, are equal, the best direction in which to face a house is with the broad side containing the large windows toward the south.
The ideal lot is one with gently rolling topography that is attractive and that allows for the natural drainage of surface water. A steep, sloping lot looks spectacular at first and children will love rolling down the hill. Unfortunately, the novelty soon will wear off and the practical problems of sloping driveways, playing on a hill and placement of lawn furniture will offset the visual advantages.
A flat lot is easy to build on. Drainage on a flat lot presents a problem, however, and results in a wet basement, flooding and seas of water on the lawns.
Lots must be graded to divert water away from the house, prevent standing water and soil saturation, provide for disposal of water, preserve desirable site features and provide grades for safe and convenient access to and around the house and lot for their use and maintenance according to the MPS. A lot also should have one or more areas conveniently located and of sufficient size and shape to adequately provide for outdoor living, children’s play areas and such service functions as laundry drying and refuse storage. At least 400 square feet is needed for this.
Drainage is accomplished by sloping the lot toward the point where the surface water is to run off the lot or into the drain or by constructing drainage swales designed to lead the water to the runoff point or drain.
The beauty of a well-landscaped lot is priceless. In many areas, some of the major advantages of an older house are the large trees, well- established lawns, shrubs and attractive flower beds. Fortunately, many builders are realizing the value of trees and taking the necessary steps during construction to preserve them, even to the extent of relocating the house or garage. The MPS requires that every lot have at least one shade tree, preferably on the southwest side. This is, of course, a minimum requirement and additional trees always enhance the beauty and value of a lot and house.
Lawns, in addition to their attractive appearance, also prevent erosion in areas where the land has been disturbed and no other suitable vegetation is present.
Driveways and Parking Spaces
A driveway may serve as an access from the street to a garage or carport or as an on-site parking area. As shown in Figure 1.3, a driveway should be at least 8 feet wide or, if it is the ribbon type, should consist of two strips 5 feet on center, each at least 2 feet wide. Most driveways are made of bituminous pavement or concrete, although other acceptable paving materials are indigenous to various local areas.
Portions used for parking spaces should be at least 10 feet wide and 22 feet long. Concrete driveways should be at least 4 inches thick. Expansion joints are required every 10 feet. Where the driveway joins the ga rage, a carport slab or sidewalk or curb, additional joints are required.
Bituminous driveways also should be at least 4 inches thick with a wearing surface of at least 1 1/2 inches. Because it is dangerous and some times illegal to back into a public Street, room must be available to turn a car around in the driveway. The driveway should be designed so that cars parked in it will not obstruct the walkway to the house.
The MPS requires, as a minimum, “a main walk extending from the front entrance of the dwelling to the street pavement, public sidewalk or drive way connected to the street.” In addition, except when the main entrance also serves as a service entrance, there should be a walk from the service entrance to the main walk, driveway, public sidewalk or street pavement. The minimum required width is 3 feet for the main walk and 2 feet for the service walk. In climates subject to freezing, the grade should not exceed 5 percent (5/8 inch per foot) and in warm climates 14 percent (1 3/4 inches per foot).
Concrete walks should be 4 inches thick with expansion joints where they connect to entrance platforms, driveways and sidewalks. Construction joints should be at 4-foot intervals. Other materials besides concrete often are used for walks, but generally they are cost-saving substitutes. Brick, tile and other similar materials sometimes are used because of their decorative appearance.
When the topography of the lot is so steep that walks cannot be constructed within the maximum grades permitted, stairs should be built. Figure 1.4 shows the MPS requirements for exterior stairs.
Security and Privacy
Millions of tract houses are built with large picture windows facing the street that, unless covered with closed drapes, result in a major loss of privacy.
A check for privacy can be made by walking slowly by the house and then around the lot line, trying to look inside the various areas of the house. Sometimes a substantial improvement in privacy can be made by planting a few shrubs or building a fence.
Electric, gas and water meters should be outside the house so strangers do not have to enter the house to read them.
The danger of opening the door to a stranger is obvious. To safely check who is at the door without opening it, there should be some clear or one-way glass in the door or sidelight, a peephole or an intercom sys tem. An additional safety feature is a door chain so that the door can be opened a crack to talk with a stranger before deciding to let him or her in.
Most professional thieves will get into a house no matter what kind of locks are used and what other precautions have been taken. Many burglars are not professionals, however, and good hardware with locks that are difficult to pick will act often as a satisfactory deterrent.
An automatic burglar alarm system connected to the police station provides maximum burglary protection. A system that sounds an alarm on the premises may scare away a prowler before he or she has a chance to take anything.