Modest proposal: For Judy Rosen and Brooks Townes (between moves) the ideal house would be small, but high quality.
Coke Whitworth Modest proposal: For Judy Rosen and Brooks Townes (between moves) the ideal house would be small, but high quality.

Brooks Townes and Judy Rosen are frustrated. After transplanting themselves from the Pacific Northwest to Asheville, N.C., for 12 years to care for an elderly parent, they’re ready to move back home, and they’re looking for a cozy nest no bigger than 1,000 square feet. But even in the peninsulas around Seattle, where progressive zoning reform has paved the way for a wider-than-average selection of jewel-box homes on small lots, the couple, who are 65 and 63, can’t find quite what they’re looking for.

Townes, an active, eco-minded type, imagines the perfect set up as a modest, detached dwelling with one bedroom, a home office, a two-car garage, and a guest cottage in the neighborhood that residents can take turns reserving for visitors. He’d also like a community studio for woodworking, boat-building, and other messy projects.

Some luxuries Townes is willing to share, and some he’s willing to do without. Nice millwork, cabinetry, and finishes are not in the category of things he’ll forgo. “Small spaces can still be high quality,” says the former journalist, who is just slightly ahead of the oldest of the Baby Boomers, who will turn 65 in 2011—a year that, with any luck, will mean happier times for home builders.

“I don’t need to show off, but good solid stuff is important to my generation,” he says. “We don’t like ... pressboard furniture and cheap countertops. A lot of builders have equated small with chintzy, and that’s where they’ve gone wrong.”

Ship Shape

Not everyone born between 1946 and 1964 shares Townes’ retirement dream of a semi-communal lifestyle. But there are enough like-minded voices pleading for a combination of small and high-end that builders are already beginning to make some fundamental shifts in what they are building.

“The impulse buyer does not exist right now, but I think they will come back if we change our product,” says Steve Romeyn, co-founder of Windsong Properties, a builder of active adult communities in the suburbs outside of Atlanta. “If the houses that were selling last year were 2,500 to 2,700 square feet with a finished bonus room, maybe now I need to scale back by 220 square feet. But I can’t switch from tile to vinyl floors or from granite countertops back to laminate. The mature buyer still wants quality. It’s like choosing between the BMW 3 series and the 5 series. If you sit in those cars, the only difference is the size, not the quality of the leather.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA, Charlotte, NC, Greensboro, NC.