Friday, July 23, 2010

Well if MSNBC reported it, it's official...

The big thinking in condos now is to get small
Urban dwellers get by in new projects where 600 square feet is spacious


Image: Cubix condominiums
Olga Soboleva
The 98-unit Cubix condominiums in San Francisco start at 250 square feet and top out at 350. The building is about two-thirds sold.
by Jane Hodges contributor
updated 7/8/2010 12:20:49 PM ET

Alexandra Gorbokon, a 26-year old public relations executive, has made an offer on her first home, a condo in downtown Chicago. She’s looking forward to eliminating her one-hour commute to and from the suburbs and filling her newfound free time with a better gym habit, enjoying her new neighborhood, and serving on a board in her building.

She’s a little less excited about squeezing her stuff into her new home’s tiny 600 square foot space. But she acknowledges that, at her age and with her modest $150,000 home price limit, living in a small space is a minor tradeoff for access to an urban lifestyle.

“I’m a little concerned about the size. I think it’s easy to grow out of this sort of space,” she says. “But I wanted to live in the city while I was still young.”

Gorbokon’s attitude about real estate is typical of her generation’s, says John McIlwain, a senior fellow for housing at The Urban Land Institute in Washington D.C. McIlwain says many new in-city condo and apartment buildings are offering smaller footprints to satisfy not only downsizing Baby Boomers but, especially, members of Generation Y who are moving out of dorms and parents' places and setting up their own households. Generation Y, he says, views a home’s location as more important than its size. They may also see living small and in-city as an environmentally responsible lifestyle.

“For Gen Y, the home is a place to live out of, not to live in,” he says. “They don’t think of this as a sacrifice. It’s just their lifestyle.”

The 'new small'
So with this renter and buyer in mind, numerous condo and apartment developers around the country are designing new homes with square footages resembling — and even far less than — Gorbokon's new home.

“Based on our experience, while anything under 1000 square feet is considered small nationally, the ‘new small’ might really average out at somewhere around 500 square feet,” says Janel Laban, executive editor for the interiors blog Apartment Therapy, which runs an annual “Small Cool” decorating contest. “Quality of life, which is often strongly affected by location, trumps size every time.”

A brief survey of completed and forthcoming buildings shows that with small-space projects, the more expensive a city, the smaller its definition of “small.” While mellow Portland, Ore., boasts 520-square foot homes, San Francisco’s “small” ranges from 250 to 350 square feet. Vancouver, British Columbia is smallest of all: There, a building called Burns Block will next year start leasing 30 “micro-lofts” with 270-square feet of space and prices starting around $700 per month. The tiny lofts might offer more room than a basement or converted spare room. Vancouver recently passed rules allowing homeowners to rent out accessory units as small as 195 square feet, according to The National Post.

Cubicle living
The 98-unit Cubix condominium building in San Francisco’s trendy SOMA (South of Market) district has sold about 66 of its tiny loft units, which start at 250 square feet and top out at 350, to a mix of young adults as well as to a surprising number of buyers in their 30s and 40s, says Jim Hurley, a broker with Vanguard Properties who is the project’s sales manager.

Image: Cubix's tiny homes range from $200,000 to $250,000. A low  price for San Francisco.
Olga Soboleva
Cubix's tiny homes range from $200,000 to $250,000. A low price for San Francisco.

“The mix of buyers isn’t skewed as young as you’d think,” Hurley says, noting that many buyers wanted second homes or split their lives between a job in San Francisco and a home elsewhere. “The demographic has been surprisingly broad.”

Ranging in price from $200,000 to $250,000, the tiny units are stylish — with concrete floors, stainless steel appliances, stone bath surrounds, and energy-efficient passive ventilation. The Cubix compensates for its units’ small size with a transit-friendly location, community amenities (like Cubix’s rooftop “glass house” common area), and proximity to services (Whole Foods is nearby). Hurley says one new resident just completed her MBA, happily ditched her car to live downtown, and uses nearby regional train transit, public buses, car-sharing, or her own two feet to get around.

Shoebox Lofts
In Portland, Ore., small is a little bigger. The cheekily-named Shoebox Lofts, set to begin construction later in 2010, will share themes seen at Cubix and other small-footprint developments. The Shoebox’s layout includes two buildings linked by a courtyard, along with ground-floor retail and amenities such as bike storage and repair space. Because the building is set on a major bus corridor and in-city bike route, it won’t offer car parking but, instead, biker-friendly features like storage and a “bike repair” room. It’s within walking or biking distance to the city’s artsy Mississippi and Alberta areas.

The 17-unit project’s 520-square foot units will offer 16-foot ceilings and prices below $200,000, says developer Jon Gustafson. Portland-based di Loreto Architecture designed the spaces with a minimalist urban feel, says project designer Chris LoNigro. The look includes concrete floors, steel-joisted ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling “garage door” windows partially shaded with exterior wooden screens.

“It’s definitely a different lifestyle choice,” Gustafson acknowledges. “I wanted the spaces to be open so the owner could decide how to live in them.”

“This sort of smaller space we’re building is going to be important to the diversity of a lot of neighborhoods in the future,” he says, noting that other condo builders offering larger units can’t help but price them for twice as much. “It’s a place to get started.”

Also forthcoming: Two small-footprint developments in the Bay Area, each comprised of 300-square foot modular-built housing units from Zeta Communities, which has designed and is manufacturing what it calls SmartSpaces from a facility in Sacramento. The two projects — a 22-unit San Francisco condominium complex and a Berkeley apartment community — are currently “on hold” given the market, says Zeta Communities spokesperson Shilpa Sankaran.

“The demand is there,” she says. “There’s a high percentage of people in the San Francisco area who are single and can live in these units.”

Trend toward downsizing
The push to introduce smaller-footprint homes is reflective of the reversal in home size that’s taken place in recent years, says Stephen Melman, a spokesman for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington D.C. Melman, citing census data, says that the median size of newly-built condominiums peaked at 1,472 square feet in 2007, but fell to 1,355 square feet in 2008. (2009 data aren’t yet available.)

Indeed, buyers of smaller condos reason that, when and if they tire of a small space, they can rent it. Condominium associations of micro-unit buildings sometimes anticipate that owners of these units will, eventually, move up and out and may want to sublet. Cubix will let owners sublet units, but for 30 or more days at a time so as to prevent excess turnover or vacation renting, Hurley says.

“I made a big down payment and sought out permission to rent my place down the line,” says Gorbokon, the Chicago buyer, who, like many builders of small-footprint spaces, is planning ahead for a future where there will be plenty of demand for small spaces among those seeking big-city living.

Jane Hodges ( is a Seattle-based business journalist.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Buyer Beware

A lot goes into buying a house as I’ve begun to find out over the last few weeks since making an offer. I’ll go into all that later, but one important thing is to understand the inner workings of your homeowner’s association (HOA).

I was devastated when I heard this story on my commute to work a few weeks ago: Not So Neighborly Associations Foreclosing On Homes. While someone was serving in Iraq, his wife missed two HOA payments. By the time he got back, the HOA foreclosed on his $300k house, which was already completely paid off, and sold for $3,500. Shocking, I know. Luckily for this family, they do have some legal recourse since the gentleman was in the military:
“In a spasm of gratitude in 2003, Congress passed the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which was supposed to prevent nonjudicial foreclosures against military personnel fighting overseas.”
For the rest of us, a few lessons to be learned here:
  • Before purchasing a home, condo, whatever, figure out how much the building has in “reserves” and if the association charges “master association fees.”
  • In other words, if something large breaks, will you have to pay above and beyond your monthly assessment? If the reserves are low, the answer is likely YES. If the roof needs to be fixed and it’s a $10,000 cost, that cost will be split among you and your neighbors, unless your building has deep reserves and uses them in emergencies.
  • Speaking of emergencies, most small associations only operate on an "as-needed" basis. Make sure you properly maintain the house on a regular basis to avoid emergencies. When there's an emergency, it'll end up being more costly in the end to fix the roof or whatever needs fixing.
  • Another thing to consider is joining your board. Make sure to get involved, after all you wouldn't let someone else make decisions about the money in your checking account, right? So don't let them make decisions about your reserves (it's YOUR money!)
These are just some ideas to get your started. Be involved and avoid regret later! And of course, pay your bills.

Real Simple Dinner

I tell everyone who cares to listen, you don't have to be a culinary genius to make yourself a home-cooked meal. I for one, am not a culinary genius of any kind. In fact a few weeks ago, while making dinner for two, I cut two fingers (I'll spare you the images). Despite these setbacks, I thought dinner turned out pretty darn delicious.

My approach to cooking is fairly straightforward. I usually cook things I ate growing up, because otherwise something tastes "off" to me. Luckily for me, veggies, grains, fish, chicken, lamb were all a part of my mother's repertoire, and cookies were not.

I also tend to cook meals that are simple, quick to create and somewhat healthy. The last element of my approach is to refine a dish and then make variations of it. Today, SALMON!

Salmon is super easy to make. I purchase the wild-caught, frozen salmon filet from Trader Joe's.

  • Defrost over night in the fridge and then lay it on a cookie sheet or baking dish lined with foil.
  • Drizzle EVOO & sprinkle salt, pepper and one other spice (dried chives today, paprika on other days).
  • Stick it in the oven for about ten minutes+.
  • You'll know it's ready by looking at it or you can always cut in half and take a small bite. The salmon should flake and should be absolutely delicious.
  • Tonight I switched it up by using an idea from a recipe from my Real Simple magazine. The recipe called for basting the fish in the last two minutes in two tbsp brown sugar and one tbsp soy sauce (which I mixed, prior to basting).

This was quite yummy!

I also like to add some sort of grain or starch to every meal (pasta, bread, rice, buckwheat, quinoa...etc). Today it was potatoes.

  • I cubed the potatoes
  • Sliced an onion
  • Cut up some white mushrooms
  • Fried it on high for a couple of minutes until it browned and then put it on low to finish the cooking process.
I like to use EVOO for this with a bit of butter. If you want to make it healthier toss it in the oven with EVOO so nothing burns.

And of course, no meal is complete without a veggie. I didn't have enough veggies (or energy) for a salad so I cut up a tomato and an orange pepper.

If I can do it, so can you :). Good luck to you and Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is my paper "to do" list finally dead?

Well probably not. I thought when I started using Microsoft Office that my paper to-do lists would be dead. No way, no how! I still use them. BUT! I was selected at my company to test drive Windows 7 and was very excited to see my new background and the sticky note feature!

Check it out. Can I quit my paper t-do list addiction?! I'll keep you posted (wink, wink).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Oh-So-Funny House Hunt

Man oh man. You should see some of the houses on the market and the shock on my face as they get snatched up. Really? You want to pay $250k to have your beautiful vintage house and HUGE backyard backing up to the brown line?? Or perhaps you want to spend $350k for a junior one-shoebox (you can't say a 9x7 area is a bedroom, can you?!).

Ahhhh, the possibilities of bad deals in my price range (no, not the numbers above) are endless! Even in this market. It all comes down to priorities as my wonderful real estate agent, Burt will tell you: Location is usually #1. Then you have to think about space, house design, bedroom size and then "amenities."

Sometimes I just want to give up on the house hunt. Maybe I'm just not ready, maybe I should rent? While I ponder, I'll leave you with this wonderful post on "10 oh-so-funny balconies." It should also give you some insight into how my house hunt has been going. (via @chiarchitecture)

This is my favorite:

2. Still in use?

I wonder is anyone still trying to use that railway?

Balcony fail

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Home Buying is Emo

That's right, buying a home is emotional. This is a great article from the New York Times (included below). It goes over three emotional questions you need to ask yourself before buying. I think you need to ask yourself a lot more:

  • Will buying this home mean you can still live your life the way you do (will you still have $ for travel, clothes and food?)?
  • Do you have a back-up plan in case you lose your job or need to pay a special assessment?
  • Is this really where you want to live, or are you just exasperated from the search!?
There's a lot that goes into this decision because it's a huge purchase. But I've thought it all through and I'm ready to take the plunge! House-hunting continues this Saturday.

Bucks - Making the Most of Your Money
April 21, 2010, 10:23 am

3 Emotional Questions Every Home Buyer Should Ask

I’ve been a big fan of Seth Godin ever since the olden days in the 1990s when we both wrote for Fast Company magazine. This week, he poses questions on his blog that will change the way you think about shopping for a home.

He, like me, is bullish on the money side of this, how a house, bought in the right way, can serve as a foundation for wealth (though by all means check out our new and improved Rent vs. Buy calculator, having its debut today, to see if now is the right time to buy where you live).

It’s the emotional side of this that can really trip you up, though. So Mr. Godin suggests asking the following three questions about what’s going on inside of your head:

1) How big a statement can you afford? When we buy a house and throw open the doors to friends and family, we’re making a statement about ourselves. We are settling down, yes. But we’re also saying: We can afford this. Look at what we’ve done. We are prospering. Or, even, sometimes, We Have Arrived!

This is dangerous.

2) Is this a referendum on your relationship? People who buy are often doing so with a spouse. It is a moment of anxiety and stress, perhaps the biggest purchase of their lives. And they don’t have much practice buying really big things. It is hard to talk about, too. So Mr. Godin suggests adding some “artificial rigor” to the conversation to make sure the buying process doesn’t become a referendum on how good your marriage is or whether the primary breadwinner is earning enough.

What sort of rigor? Mr. Godin doesn’t say. I’d suggest find a neutral party to counsel you, say a financial planner whom you pay by the hour. Or a couples therapist. Or a trusted friend. Please post your ideas for rigor below.

3) Will this kill your appetite for risk? “A mortgage can wipe you out” if you are an entrepreneur or big idea person, Mr. Godin writes. But not quite the way you may think. The pressure of the monthly payment may keep you from trying something potentially brilliant. You have a mortgage to pay, after all, and quitting to start a business would not be responsible.

Smart stuff, I think. How about you?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Beauty of the Burbs

The following is an incomplete list of what I'll miss if I ever move to the city. For city folk, a peek into what you're missing and some explanation of "why anyone would ever live in the burbs." For the suburbanites, a reminder of what you've got before it's gone!

- Family and friends. I'm about 99% sure fewer people will visit us since we won't be able to guarantee parking in the city.

- Rent/ mortgage is so much less you can actually afford to travel the world. See images of our latest trip to Indonesia (enjoy the captions)

- Lots of bedroom closet space. My closet is about 5 ft in diameter, and it's in my bedroom! In fact I've played hide-and-seek in there multiple times and once Igor couldn't even find me (hey, wait a second...!)

- Quiet hood, 'nuff said.

- The amazing grocery stores. I can't imagine only shopping @ Whole Foods, Dominick's, Jewel, TJs and the farmer's market when the weather is nice. I will probably go back to the burbs for my fresh, inexpensive veggies

- The joy of waiting for the purple line @ Howard when it's freezing outside, just kidding, this I won't miss.

What would you add to or argue with on this list??

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Leftover Matzo

What do you do with all that leftover matzo?? Make Matzo Brittle, an addictive little snack that only gets better as the days go on. A bajillion recipes exist online, but I chose this one, from another "go-to" site, Chowhound.

I tried to include the picture from the link on my blog, but for some reason it's not uploading properly, perhaps it's a sign from g-d to observe copyright

Back to the brittle. So easy to make and everyone is very impressed afterward. But be warned, I highly recommend a game plan to distribute it. Otherwise you'll end up like me and eat it for breakfast

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Suburban City Passover

I'm not afraid to admit it: I didn't make Passover Seder plans this year. Plans fell through with the fam, life isn't always perfect. So with this realization on the day of the first Seder, I hit up my favorite sites (Epicurious, Food Network, NY Times), devised a plan for the "easiest-and-fastest-to-make" Seder of all time and went at it. The results: Fantastic! Mom was impressed, boyfriend was full and educated, I was happy. Here's how to whip together the fastest Seder of all time. Afterall, this is a holiday where time is of the essence!
  1. No Passover is complete without Matzoh Ball Soup. You may be disgusted by this recommendations, but I thought it was ok. I recommend making the soup out of the box. Takes like 15 minutes of hands on time. I added one carrot and fresh parsley for garnish and felt pretty good about myself.
    More Time? Make chicken soup from scratch and make real matzoh balls.

  2. Charoset: I used this recipe with a few variations: I shredded the apple instead of cubing it, since that's what my mom did when I was little. I also added raisins instead of brown sugar (can't imagine why on earth you would add sugar to the sweetest dish on earth). My mom said the walnuts and raisins were the best combo she's ever had. And believe me, my mom knows what she's talking about.
    More Time? I donno, I still kinda liked this recipe!

  3. Main course was a simple salad and smoked fish. Salad was baby spinach, cucumber, tomato, yellow bell pepper with olive oil and lemon vinaigrette. Smoked fish was already cut and sold in the store (I shop at Village Market, but any ethnic grocery store will do)
    More Time? Both of my parents make gefilte fish from scratch, I have a feeling that'll have to be a separate post.

  4. If you must have dessert, end with a sorbet or macaroons

For the second Seder, I whipped up a new salad and fried one small white onion with chicken liver (~5 minutes on each side, just slice the onion). I repurposed the charoset and soup.

This is my solution to a quick and easy Seder after a long commute from the city to the suburbs.

Future Passover dishes? I intend to make matzoh pizza tonight and try to make a Rosti - first I've heard of this. It's like a big Latke!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Removing Bath Decals

I've started looking at city properties and realized that given my price range, I may have to buy a place that needs some remodeling. I've decided to test my skills and do a little remodeling around the current house.

For the bathroom, I spent a few hours removing bath decals after googling and learning a few tricks. Here's the Apartment Therapy post that gave me the idea in the first place

If you have bath decals you'd like to remove, try these steps:
Step 1: Blow dry the decal for one minute (I needed to use an extension cord for this)
Step 2: Lift the decal with a card (in this case it was a Jewel-Osco card)
Step 3: Remove any leftover adhesive with rubbing alcohol and a paper towel

Good luck and please ask questions or comment!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Hunt

Loved reading this article. I'm thinking about transitioning to the city, and while this takes place in's so relevant here. What can you afford?

I'm beginning to think there's not much out there in my price range and laundry list of desires (like in-unit laundry!) But I figure this is a learning process. I'm not alone and transition is a good thing.

Chicago has a bazillion neighborhoods, and sooner rather than later, I'll find one that works for me.

Welcome, please come in...

Hey! I think I'm going to blog about living in the suburbs and working in the city. Hence my aptly named blog. What's going along with all of this, is restaurant reviews in both city and suburban places, cooking tips, tricks and recipes since that's what I'm interested in and that's what suburbanites do.

Hope you enjoy and please, feel free to comment.