Skinny houses rebound in Boise

Buyers like lower prices and less yardwork, and developers see a chance to make more money

sberg@idahostatesman.comJanuary 17, 2014 

Plenty of homebuyers still want a big backyard.

They like to spend evenings and weekends at home, with plenty of space between them and their neighbors. Living close to outdoor recreation is less important to them, said Kami Brant, owner of Boise real estate agency O2 Marketing Group.

In the Treasure Valley, Brant said, those people tend to look for homes in Meridian and Southwest Boise, where large houses on big lots are more common.

Then there are people who don’t spend much of their free time at home.

Every chance they get, they’re riding their bikes in the Foothills or running on the Greenbelt. The last thing they want to do on Saturday is mow the lawn.

Those buyers tend to value East Boise and other areas close to outdoor amenities, Brant said.

It’s no coincidence that East Boise is one of several places around the city where the popularity of so-called skinny houses is growing.

If you’ve seen the houses, you know what they are. Many are about 20 feet wide, Boise’s minimum for single-family detached homes. The lots are usually narrow, leaving just a few feet between houses.

Brant said skinny houses are cheaper than houses on larger lots, often by tens of thousands of dollars.

That’s an obvious attraction for many buyers.

But less maintenance is just as attractive, she said, whether potential buyers are young, active families or older people who just don’t want to do much yardwork.

A NEW MARKET

Developers have noticed the market’s skinny house niche and are responding with narrow, multistory homes on small lots.

Scott Noriyuki, of the Eagle development firm Northside Management, is planning to put 14 homes on 1.28 acres on Malad Street just west of Vista Avenue. Each lot will be 26 feet wide. Two-car garages will open to alleys behind the homes.

Noriyuki said he originally planned to put upscale fourplexes on the property and rent them, but the shifting housing market convinced him to go with skinny houses.

“We see a demographic coming out of the economic decline where we still have entry-level buyers, or we have those that had to downsize for whatever reason, that still want to have personal ownership,” he said.

“I think it’s going to be a huge opportunity as a step-up product for folks living on the Bench in that area to legitimately make the transition from being a renter or being a first-time buyer or wanting to just simply upgrade — or, from some older folks’ standpoint, downsize.”

Experience has made Northside wary of attached homes such as townhouses and condominiums, Noriyuki said, because buyers sometimes struggle to find a lender to finance their purchases.

“The underwriters, period, want to have dirt associated with the property instead of shared walls,” he said.

Noriyuki said the houses he plans for Malad Street will cost less than most new houses on standard-size lots. He wouldn’t say exactly how much Northside plans to sell them for.

BOISE’S SKINNY HISTORY

Noriyuki’s Malad Street project is different from Boise’s standard skinny house development because it features new property lines. Many skinny houses are part of what’s known as infill development: replacing one or a few large homes on big lots with a bunch of smaller homes.

As Boise grows, city planners, led by City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg, want to see more infill of existing neighborhoods instead of residential sprawl that chews up open space and requires people to drive farther to get to work or shops.

The skinny house trend is especially common in Boise’s older areas, where planners made standard housing lots 25 feet wide. From the early years of Boise’s existence, people who wanted bigger homes and more room bought three or four side-by-side lots and built houses in the middle of them.

As those structures deteriorate, some owners are tearing them down and replacing them with rows of skinny houses.

That’s exactly what Dan Appel is doing in Southeast Boise.

A little more than a year ago, Appel tore down a house in the middle of four lots near the corner of Division Avenue and Highland Street. He has since built two skinny houses on two of the lots and plans to finish homes this year on the other two lots.

“In the older subdivisions, that’s kind of the way to go,” Appel said. “People still want the quality, but they don’t necessarily want the big box.”

A BETTER IMAGE

A few years ago, skinny houses had a bad reputation in Boise. They were often of poor quality, and people thought the garages that dominated many of their front sides made them ugly. Clegg called them an example of “snout houses.”

The city passed an ordinance to regulate small-lot, single-family homes. The new law required skinny houses to have alley-loaded garages — entrance behind the home — if possible.

If there’s no alley, it requires design features such as an overhanging second story or porch that diminishes the appearance of garage doors. All skinny houses must have front-facing entrances.

Clegg said the new standards have made skinny houses more attractive as an infill alternative.

She believes Boise’s market for small-lot homes is just beginning to take off, especially in developed neighborhoods close to shopping and other activities.

“When we build suburban housing on greenfields, everybody claims that that’s just the market responding and we should all be happy about it,” she said. “But when these kinds of developments begin emerging, nobody talks so much about the market, but I think it’s a market response itself.”

Skinny houses and other small-lot homes aren’t right for every circumstance, Clegg said.

On major roadways within walking distance of a bus station, apartments and townhomes are better options because of their higher resident density and stricter parking regulation, she said.

Near the Boise State University campus, for instance, single-family homes often have more people living in them than spaces in the garage, meaning a parking crunch.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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