Aging housing stock drives hope for new construction

There’s a tantalizing statistic that is calling out to builders: 73 percent of homes in the region were built before 1979. However, while foundations are being poured and the sound of nail guns can be heard in Southwest Connecticut, new home construction remains tame — despite evidence of fresh demand.

Newly built houses, especially in the middle-class price range, are sorely needed, according to Bryan Robik, managing member and co-founder with this wife Ronit Glantz of RG Builders. Their company is developing six new single family homes on Clinton Avenue in Stratford, starting at $339,900 a piece.


In Fairfield County, only 6.8 percent of homes were built after 2000, and in the whole state that figure is 7.1 percent. In Massachussetts, 7.8 percent of the houses are less than two decades old. And in communities out west and in the South, where population growth has been trending up, it’s even higher. About 17 percent of the homes in Houston, Texas were built after 2000 and in Washoe County, Nev., it’s 25 percent.

In Connecticut, the demand for new construction is driven by homebuyers who want modern conveniences, but that fervor is kept in check by a lack of available land, high costs to build, regulation and a desire by some to maintain the character of communities.


Robik looks at the age of the housing stock as an opportunity, albeit one tempered by market and economic conditions. Standing on one of his parcels in Stratford, where the house has been framed and across the street from another where a foundation has been laid, he said there are buyers who just don’t have the time or the willingness to remodel an older house. That’s why he’s speculating on these homes. He’s building two of the six first and hopes to attract buyers. Then he’ll start on the next pair.


But making a new home attractive in Connecticut isn’t as simple as just putting up something new — it has to have character.


Robik said his wife, Glantz, either works with an architect to create unique designs or buys plans for new homes and customizes them.

Even with these trends, he said, builders have to be cautious.

“There isn’t a lot of population growth in Connecticut,” he said. Adding to this is a developed part of the country where there isn’t a lot of vacant space.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Fairfield County’s population is growing at about 0.6 percent, or 6,268 people, per year since 2010. That’s not a huge number, but it still leads to demand, and the last few years people have delayed buying a home, remaining in apartments or living with parents.


Bruce Tuomala, Danbury’s economic development director, sees housing as both contributing to and an outgrowth of economic development.


Danbury has led the region in new home permits for two consecutive years, mostly due to new apartment buildings and the development of Toll Brothers’ Rivington village in the western part of Danbury, a 1,080 unit community that offers a variety of structures, including condominiums and townhomes.

“It’s driven by the economy and the Danbury area has about the best numbers in terms of unemployment rate and job recovery,” Tuomala said. He said it also helps that Danbury and its sister communities are nice places to live with lots to do, from hiking to shopping.


That in turn has led to increased interest in living in the area, which has sparked some development, but Tuomala wouldn’t call it a boom in new housing.

It’s a positive trend nonetheless, according to Cheryl Scott Daniels, president of Mid Fairfield County Association of Realtors and CSD Select Homes of Westport.


“About 6 percent of the homes sold in our market were built within the last year,” she said.

In lower Fairfield County, newly constructed houses bring a premium, going for $1.5 million to $2 million. And for those who want something a little smaller and less expensive, they have to go farther north or east, even into New Haven County.


“It almost doesn’t matter where it is, as long as it’s new,” she said, of those looking for homes that have not been lived in yet.

What they’re looking for is modern and up-to-date. She said they want open floor plans and many forego having a formal living room.

There’s still a healthy number of people who like older homes, but Daniels noted that generally “the people who want old, want really old. They like the quality of the things built in the 1920s or 1930s.”


Pete Fusaro, of Old Greenwich-based Preferred Builders, agreed with Daniels that people tend to preserve the oldest homes and are more likely to tear down a home built in the 1970s or 1960s.

In fact, new single-family home construction in the region is dominated, according to several builders, by people who are tearing down an older house.


“The one we just finished is a 1971 house and it was on a slab,” Fusaro said. “No basement or crawl space. The insulation was terrible. It wasn’t worth it.”

So the owners decided to tear it down and rebuild, with better insulation and new, energy-efficient equipment.

Fusaro said a lot of homeowners are putting in solar panels and getting rebates on them. He also said with modern insulation, new homes can vastly reduce the size of the heating and air conditions systems, saving space and energy costs.

There are other hurdles in the new home construction. In Connecticut, there can be a conflict with zoning and the community when a new subdivision is proposed.


In New Haven County, Bethany resident Anthony Esposito and other residents are opposing a zoning change that would allow the development of 35 homes on a property that’s only zoned for 11.

“This is a small town,” Esposito said. “We have low crime. A really good school system. Whenever you have a big influx of population, the school system goes downhill.”


Economic factors, however, might dampen the kind of expansion Esposito is fearing.

“The lack of affordable housing is a huge issue in Fairfield County,” said Keith Cook, co-president and director of construction at Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County.

In Connecticut, the unemployment rate in February was 8 percent, while the national rate was 7.7 percent. And wages were down $58 a week in Fairfield County in the third quarter of 2012.


Habitat helps people making $35,000 to $40,000 a year become homeowners. It’s a difficult task. The standard formula for obtaining a mortgage is that the total home price should not exceed three times yearly income. That’s difficult to find in state where the median price for a single family is $225,000. In Fairfield County, that figure is $390,100.

Cook said a big reason is that land is so expensive. He said Coastal County works in three communities, Bridgeport, Stamford and Stratford, where they sometimes get deals on land from the cities. Building in a place like Greenwich is out of the question, he said, because the land costs too much.


Even so, Robik and other builders are optimistic.

“There are pockets of new development,” Robik said. “There’s a void there.”