By Leslie Mann
Special to the Tribune
May 15, 2009
"One, it's a new house with an attached garage, but at a better price than most single-family houses. Two, it's low-maintenance and I am not handy. Three, no yardwork!" says David of the 1,900-square-foot, three-bedroom rowhouse they will move into later this month. A condominium was out of the question, says David, because as renters they are tired of sharing walls and ceilings with neighbors and "hearing their babies cry and doors slam," he says.
Despite the real estate tsunami, rowhouse sales are staying afloat. Wiseman-Hughes, the Waxbergs' builder, has sold 89 of its 154 Plaza rowhouses.
With a $261,900 base price, The Plaza residences are among the lowest-priced new rowhouses in the area. Buyers get two to three bedrooms, two to three bathrooms and trappings that include balconies, volume ceilings, 42-inch kitchen cabinets and granite countertops.
After home-shopping for several years, the Waxbergs learned the jargon; they understand that builders generally define "rowhouses" as separate, but connected, houses with similar or identical facades. But, as this style becomes more popular, its definition gets fuzzy.
The true rowhouse style dates back to the crowded sections of 17 th Century Europe, says Alexander von Hoffman, historian at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. When the Europeans settled the Colonies, they replicated them here, he says, especially where housing was huddled close to harbors.
"As the towns grew into cities on the East Coast in the 19th Century, the rowhouse was still a good use of space, both for high-end and low-end housing," says von Hoffman. "Then, the lots were deeper than the houses because they needed room in the back for outhouses and to hang laundry."
Somewhere along the line, though, the definition of "rowhouse" blurred with that of "townhouse," notes von Hoffman. "Literally, a townhouse is the house you have in town while you have another one in the country," he says. But today, builders build "townhouses" in cities and suburbs and most of their owners do not have second homes. While few argue that attached houses that are clustered but face different directions are townhouses, those that are lined up are called townhouses or rowhouses at the whims of the builders.
"Although not all of the early rowhouses were high-end, it has become the urban-chic term for homes in a row," says von Hoffman. "After World War II, Americans wanted out of the cities. But now that it's fashionable to live in the cities again, this city-like housing is fashionable, in and out of the city."
The result, for the Chicago-area's new-housing mix, are townhouses in "town" (Chicago), which may or not be in rows, plus rowhouses lined up like soldiers in suburbs from Lake Forest to Elgin.
Now, buyers who like rowhouses can find them at every price point. At the lower end are Bigelow Homes' rowhouses in HomeTown Aurora, where prices start at $147,900 and square footage at 1,750. In addition to the requisite living/dining/kitchen area, these two-bedroom, three-bathroom rowhouses have two-car garages. "Our buyers are a combination of singles, DINKs [double-income, no kids] and empty-nesters," reports Jamie Bigelow. "They want the privacy of a single-family house at a condo price."
A notch up the price ladder from HomeTown and The Plaza on New York are the 39 rowhouses at Lexington Square, built by Lexington Homes in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. With a base price of $439,990, these three-story rowhouses with at least 2,240 square feet have three to four bedrooms, 2½ baths, two-car garages and rooftop decks. Like many of the new rowhouses, the exterior facades differ from unit to unit. These are selling to Chinatown and Bridgeport natives who want new homes close to their roots, says a Lexington spokesman.
Buyers at Oakwood Shores in Chicago's North Kenwood neighborhood are eligible for a $10,000 City of Chicago down payment assistance grant. These two-story rowhouses start at $529,900. Their two-car garages are detached. Three of the 16 rowhouses here are unsold and average 3,000 square feet, says their builder, Granite Partners Oakwood Boulevard in Chicago. Oakwood's buyers are young families and professional couples.
For buyers with fatter wallets, Airhart Construction is building rowhouses at Courthouse Square in Wheaton. Starting at $729,000, the three remaining rowhouses in Phase II have 3,200 square feet, four floors and two-car garages. They include elevators, home theaters and roof terraces. The 13 Phase III rowhouses will have at least 2,640 square feet, priced from $599,900, with similar amenities plus a first-floor patio. So far, buyers are a mix of young and old, single and married, says Court Airhart, president, but their common thread is their desire to be within walking distance of downtown Wheaton.
Buyers who are shopping for rowhouses should enter "townhouse" in their Internet search engine, too, thanks to the home style's identity problem. Homes at Cornelia Court in Chicago's West Roscoe Village, for example, look like rowhouses but are billed as townhouses. The 12 units of Phase III, which start at $499,900, have 2,242 square feet.
The crème de la crème of Chicago suburban rowhouses is the 20-home Regents Row in Lake Forest, under construction by Windward Builders Inc. The three remaining units average 4,000 square feet and start at $1.85 million. Situated in downtown Lake Forest, they are selling to long-time residents who want to give up the maintenance of their single-family houses but stay in town, says Ross Friedman, president.
Regents Row buyers get elegance in and out, from copper gutters and mahogany front doors to extensive woodwork and built-ins. Eighteen-inch common walls make them as sound-resistant as commercial theaters, says Freidman. A pre-construction focus group told him these buyers didn't want to sacrifice single-family amenities they were used to, such as roomy formal dining rooms and walk-in showers, so Friedman included them.
Regents Row was ideal for John and Barbara Sloan, who wanted to downsize from their single-family house in Lake Forest yet remain within walking distance of the town's shops, restaurants, train station and beach. "I've retired and we like to travel, so this way, we can lock the door and leave town without worrying about who will mow the lawn or shovel the snow," says John. "But we didn't want to downsize so much that we didn't have room for our sons when they come home. And we didn't want to give up the accoutrements you get in a single-family house."
As buyers of all stripes adopt the rowhouse, the style continues to evolve beyond its simpler roots to include features typically found in larger single-family houses, such as separate tubs and showers, laundry rooms and kitchen islands. What it lacks, unless it is an end unit, are windows on the side walls. But even that is changing compared to the rowhouse of old, thanks to windows aplenty on the front and rear walls. Some higher-end rowhouses, such as those at Regents Row, have skylights to add additional light to the top floors.
"The rowhouse is nothing new, nothing novel," notes Friedman. "But it is appealing to more than the downsizing empty-nesters. It offers the green, walk-to-everything, more urban lifestyle that many buyers want. It's still a niche, but despite the recession, it's selling."
Bottom line, says von Hoffman, "You can't get a more efficient use of space."