Some Alternative Options in Detached Housing, Part 1

There’s many advantages to living in a detached house – they generally offer more space, more separation and privacy from neighbors, and a discrete place to drive up to, look at, and call your own. But there’s definitely drawbacks to the primary ways of acquiring a detached home (owning a house and land or renting one in an established area): maintenance, difficulty in relocating, and coming up with a down payment. Although I’ve gone the traditional way to own a suburban house, new developments in suburban housing and suburbia always intrigue me. I thought I’d write about some alternatives to traditional house and lot ownership in the metro while keeping the detached form. Images are my own unless noted.

The first option: suburban detached townhouses

Wedged between Eden Prairie’s Bearpath Golf & Country Club and US-212, but across from Lake Riley is a neighborhood of small detached townhouses, the North Bay neighborhood. Like all townhouses you buy and own the interior, but the exterior shell and land are owned by an association. Unlike most townhouses these do not have any shared walls.

Townhouses of the North Bay neighborhood of Eden Prairie.

Like all housing options between “owning your own detached house and yard” and “living in an apartment tower” there’s various trade-offs involved. On the upside they tend to be in new, safe neighborhoods, they’re more affordable than traditional new construction, they’re free of exterior maintenance, and you still have ventilation and some light from the sides.

On the downside they still have the long narrow footprint of townhouses. The garage is by far the dominant feature viewable from the street. Each house is finished uniformly with little individuality. And if walkability is important to you, the only things walkable from here are the Southwest Transit station, the Kwik Trip, and Riley Lake Park.

Detached townhouses like these are much more common in other areas of the country. A lot of times they’re called “patio homes”, and tend to be low slung and built on slab foundations. Adapted for our climate, North Bay has finished basements (most of them walkouts) and is more vertical.

Who might buy a suburban detached townhouse?

I’d speculate the buyers of these are people that love suburbia and plan to stay put, can’t afford a newer construction house or don’t want the exterior maintenance, yet can afford to not share a wall with neighbors. With the limited size of these it seems best suited for single adults, couples, related adults without children, or very small families.

The vertical layout and detached format worked well for my adult friend that lived with his mother before he left to join the Army. His mother had the upstairs living room, kitchen, and bedroom, and my friend had a home theater/gaming room (that he could blast as loud as he wanted as late as he wanted) and bedroom downstairs. By contrast my sister and her roommates would provoke angry banging from adjacent residents when they lived in an apartment and so much as talked loudly after 10:00 PM.

Looking at Zillow, prices range from the mid-$200s for a 2-bed, 2-bath 1,300 square foot townhouse to the mid-$300s for a larger 2 bedroom or one of the very few 3 bedrooms. By contrast, prices for the traditional development next door tend to start in the mid-$500s for a 4 bedroom, 2,700 square foot house and go into the $700s.

The second option: “urban” detached townhouses

Down in Lakeville we see some more detached townhouses, the RT Urban Revival Collection at Spirit of Brandtjen Farms. These are unique enough they were a subject of a Star Tribune article a while back: New Lakeville development is designed to offer a city lifestyle in suburbia

RT Urban Collection at the Spirit of Brandtjen Farms

While the concept is the same, owning the interior while someone else owns the shell and land, the pricing, setting, marketing, and built form are completely different. Prices start where North Bay leaves off: $344,900 for a 1-bed, 1-bath 900 square foot “Modern Bungalow” with no options, and then go up to the mid-$400s for a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath 1,700 square foot unit “Modern Prairie” (base price $394,900) loaded with options.

These are much more high-end then North Bay, and unlike there my impression is the units tend overwhelmingly towards the higher end of the scale. These seem more for families as opposed to single adults like my friend that lived in North Bay. Even with a smaller size than traditional new construction houses, you can still provide up to two kids with private bedrooms.

The setting is part of the Spirit of Brandtjen Farms master-planned community, close to a square mile in size and featuring (mostly) artificial lakes, multi-use trails winding behind houses, and the restored farmstead as a clubhouse with decent sized swimming pool.

Map of the Spirit of Brandtjen Farms development, bounded by 170th Street West on the south, Pilot Knob Road on the west, 162nd Street West on the north, and to the east, a gravel pit and agricultural field.
Spirit of Brandtjen Farms Map, the RT Urban collection is at the top center. Image by Spirit of Brandtjen Farms.
The entrance to the Spirit of Brandtjen Farms clubhouse as viewed looking north.
Spirit of Brandtjen Farms Clubhouse. Rather than simply raze the farmstead, the developer restored and repurposed it and in fact created somewhat of a mythology about the Brandtjen Family, which farmed some of the area for three generations before cashing out and selling to a developer.

These are marketed as “urban” homes, or as Tradition Development President Todd Stutz puts it, “It’s an overused tagline, but with this project, we like to say we’re putting the urban in suburban”. Although I can hear the guffaws from urbanists, it’s worth pointing out that these are within walking distance to an elementary school, grocery store, and restaurant. More commercial development is planned.

Unfortunately, it’s a brutal commute to anyone that needs to go work downtown from one of these homes, and the main park and pool/clubhouse are on the other side of the development from these townhouses, at the left and bottom of the map respectively. The fact that these homes come standard with two car garages regardless of size indicates you aren’t likely to go anywhere beyond the community in any mode other than a car.

Who might buy an “urban” detached townhouse?

The Star Tribune article suggests a lot of buyers are Millennials who are priced out of what they really want: a home in the cities with space for a family, or are enthusiastic about the suburbs but want a more urban form to their house.

“To get a new home with this square footage for under $400,000 would be challenging in the urban market”, Stutz said. “Millennial buyers we are trying to attract have been renting in the central cities. When they buy, they’re looking for the style and amenities they’re used to.”

A quote from the designer:

“Suburban houses are more traditional, they feel a little heavier, more ornate. These [townhouses] are not that at all; they’re sleek with a minimalist look,” said Emily Anderson, senior designer for Martha O’Hara Interiors, which fashioned four different design packages for buyers of the Lakeville dwellings…[The Buyers] are used to brand-new finishes and fixtures. They’ve had high-end countertops, cabinets, flooring, lighting,” Anderson added. “They’re OK with compact space and less square footage; they think about their carbon footprint.“

Clicking through the pictures within the article, they do look more like those I’ve seen in urban lofts than in typical suburban neo-ecletic houses. Or as the article puts it, “If prospective home buyers were blindfolded before they entered… they might not be able to say for sure if they were in the city or in the suburbs.”

Beyond Millennials that like some elements of the city but can’t afford or don’t want to live in the city, here’s my speculation who might buy a house here:

  • People that want to buy something instead of renting, those that are willing to trade the inability to pack up and move easily for building equity and pride of ownership.
  • People that want the community amenities with the maintenance free lifestyle. While you can buy a house in a typical development for that price in, say, Shakopee, a typical development’s amenities, if you’re lucky, might include a small playground and a short trail around the drainage pond. Having a pool is great when it’s 90 degrees out, provided someone else maintains it. And the parks and trails here are much more elaborate. Comparable sized traditional houses in Spirit start in the high $400s, but most are in the $500s and $600s with a few adjoining the lake topping $1 million.
  • People that want houses with porches oriented towards the street, instead of garages and big yards. My parents and I hate alleys and would never buy a house with one. We believe the benefit of not having to look at the neighbor’s garage door and trash cans isn’t worth the decreased backyard space/privacy, along with the increased time spent accessing your parking space. But there are other people with different preferences, and here the “alley” is actually as wide as some streets, which mitigates the tediousness of driving a car down one.
A street-level view of an RT Urban alley. Instead of the alleys present in most urban cores, this alley is as wide as a typical residential street.
RT Urban “Alley”

Although they’re advertised with “fenced yards”, the fenced portion is tiny and off to the side – seemingly intended to let your dog out rather than a large private place for neighborhood barbecues or for your kids to play. The people buying these obviously are more interested in sitting on their front porch than barbequing out back, and sending their kids to play at a park as opposed to their yard.

So far we’ve seen two options for owning the interior of a detached house, but not the shell and yard. Part Two of this series on alternatives to traditional single-family detached house ownership will focus on something different where you don’t own any of the house: new construction rental developments in the suburbs.

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.