American dream: revised

Joan Maybank has spent the last two years preparing to buy a home. Now that she’s ready, prices have risen higher than she can afford.

In May, the median price of single-family homes in Snohomish County reached $345,000, an increase of 19.3 percent from the previous year.

Families who find home prices too expensive are being forced to look more closely at condominiums, said Ann Schroeder-Osterberg of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

According to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, the median condominium price in Snohomish County in May was $203,250, about $140,000 less than the median price for a single-family home.

In recent months, condominium prices have also been less volatile than detached home prices, rising only 7 percent between May 2005 and May 2006.

With the limited amount of land available for building and the high cost of road improvements, a market shift toward condominiums may be a good thing, said Tony To, executive director of HomeSight, a nonprofit housing agency serving King and Snohomish Counties.

“People should really look at growth density in our urban areas,” To said. “If you want to preserve the environment and preserve the existing character of the neighborhoods without high density, you’re going to have to increase density in certain designated areas.”

It may be time for people to start revising their ideas of what they want in a home, To said.

“The American dream of a single-family home with a yard and a garage has really become unachievable for some people,” he said. “It’s going to be very expensive for that, and that’s not going to change. People may have to settle for a townhouse of a condominium instead.”

An easier solution to the price dilemma would be for the county government to open up more land for housing development, said Russ Hokanson, executive vice president of the Snohomish County Camano Association of Realtors.

He said the biggest contributor to rising home prices is restricted land supply because of the state Growth Management Act of 1990, which forces developers to build in designated urban growth areas.

“There’s a lot of competition for buildable lots, and that drives up prices significantly,” said Mike Pattison, government affairs manager for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

The Snohomish County Council was “pretty stingy” about expanding urban growth areas when it completed its 10-year-update in December 2005, said Councilmember John Koster, who leads the Planning and Community Development Committee.

The growth act has succeeded at protecting natural resources and curbing sprawl, but it has also contributed to rising home prices by reducing available land, Koster said.

Increasing density through condominium development is one way to combat that problem, he said.

“I think we’re going to have to accept the fact that there’s going to be some greater density,” Koster said. “Some jurisdictions are going to have to consider different types of development. Like it or not, that’s where we’re at. That’s what the law says.”

Condominiums may be the new “starter home” for many families, he said.

But it is questionable whether Snohomish County residents are ready to embrace condominiums as substitutes for detached single-family homes, Pattison said.

“Over time, people’s tastes will change, but people looking to move to Snohomish County do so for the American dream of the yard and white picket fence,” Pattison said. “The market here isn’t demanding condominiums as much as it is in more urbanized areas.”

For Maybank, who is working with HomeSight to purchase a home in South Snohomish County, a condominium isn’t an ideal situation.

She’s in the market for a three-bedroom house with a yard.

“My kids desperately want a yard, and I love gardening,” she said.

Furthermore, few condominiums are available in the area near her children’s prospective high school, she said, and relocating isn’t an option.

Ultimately, the future of housing development in the county will follow homebuyers’ preferences, Koster said.

“There’s a segment of the population like myself who want a little space,” he said. “The law of supply and demand never goes away, no matter what the government does.”

Reporter Melissa Santos:

Snohomish County May housing prices

Single-family homes: $345,000, up 19.3 percent from May 2005.

Condominiums: $203,250, up 7 percent from 2005.

Snohomish County May housing prices

Single-family homes: $345,000, up 19.3 percent from May 2005.

Condominiums: $203,250, up 7 percent from a year ago.

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

Owners of the Nautica in downtown Everett recently converted the units in the apartment complex to condominiums.

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