There is much to love about living in an established neighborhood, whether it’s a vibrant urban setting or a coveted leafy suburb. Locations are walkable, so you don’t always have to drive. Infill properties often have easy access to public transportation, cutting down on commute time. There are also more opportunities for social interaction and cultural activities.
However, “It’s rare to find housing options that combine the convenience of a walkable location—to train stations, restaurants, bars, and retail—with the peace of mind and lower maintenance costs of new construction,” says Sarah Peck, owner and founder of Progressive New Homes in Malvern, PA.
Nate Wissink, principal of Elevation Homes in Wayzata, MN, is a 20-year veteran of city living and sings its praises. “You get connected to the people around you,” says the Twin Cities builder. “There’s a unique aspect to living when you’re integrated with an old neighborhood.”
You can get this “unique aspect” with infill construction, or the process of reutilizing urban property for new builds.
“Some older homes are very tired and either not functionally relevant or environmentally [unfriendly],” Wissink says. New infill homes are built to stricter codes, with tighter building envelopes, better windows and doors, and high-efficiency HVAC equipment. Products such as low volatile organic compounds (or low-VOC) paints and finishes are used for improved indoor air quality, and many builders salvage or recycle materials from demolished buildings.
Dwell Development builds single-family detached and attached homes in Seattle that have triple-pane windows and a robust amount of insulation. This ensures that residents aren’t disturbed by the sounds of traffic, construction equipment, or planes flying overhead, says Dwell principal Anthony Maschmedt.
While there are a plethora of benefits, there are some tradeoffs to consider.
Why Infill Costs More
For a variety of reasons, new infill homes cost more than new homes in planned communities in outlying areas.
According to Jim LaVallee, director for marketing and development at Atlanta-based Epic Development, proper compliance with easements, setbacks, local design guidelines, and other regulations requires a good architect and civil engineer, an experienced builder, and significantly more time for permit approval. Dirt piles and materials must be coordinated and often relocated to create space for construction activity, says Peck. Homes built in flood zones must comply with FEMA regulations as well as any applicable local or regional requirements. Builders may be required to update utility lines and equipment, repair or replace sidewalks, save trees, and install stormwater management systems.
When you take into account the burden of regulations, building code and zoning requirements, and construction challenges, it’s not surprising that new infill homes in Seattle, Boston, Chicago, and other large cities are more expensive to build than new homes in suburban subdivisions.
Additionally, when companies like Planet Home Living in Newport Beach, CA do infill, it’s typically 10 to 20 units rather than the 100-plus homes a suburban developer would build. “You don’t have the economy of scale you would have with a larger planned community in Irvine or Riverside,” Michael Marini, CEO, says. Planet Home Living’s modern designs also cost more per square foot to build and tend to have higher spec levels; hence their higher sale prices.
There are a growing number of zoning and regulatory restrictions that can impact the design of a new infill home. For instance, municipalities may require garage doors to be oriented to the street, and significant tree preservation, especially mature boundary-line trees or trees that are just over your property line.
New homes in historic neighborhoods are subject to architectural restrictions, so if you’re building a home from the ground up in one of those areas, be prepared for a lengthy process, says LaVallee. The scale, height, architectural style, and exterior detailing of the new home must be approved by the local design review board.
On-site parking, such as a garage or carport, is typically provided with a single-family detached infill. “Our new homes have either an attached, front-loaded garage or a detached, alley-loaded garage,” says Wissink. But in denser locations—especially downtown and close to public transportation—there may only be street parking.
Chances are an infill property will also have less outdoor space. As Maschmedt puts it, “If you put a 2,500-square-foot home on a 5,000-square-foot city lot, you get a small yard.” In Los Angeles, says Marini, “you might get a roof deck, and a 5-foot setback at ground level so you can have a dog.” It’s possible, too, that a new home built on a smaller lot may have a less expansive master suite and smaller secondary bedrooms than many suburban homes, LaVallee says.
Starting Your Search
Before you start the process of buying or building a new infill home, find an advocate who will work with you from start to finish. It may be an architect, a builder, or a realtor; the important thing is that it’s someone who can help you realize your vision from start to finish. “You want someone who will actively listen to you,” Wissink recommends.
Next, Do Your Homework
It could be helpful to have a conversation with local municipal officials to see if any issues were raised during construction, Peck says. “Obviously, doing research on the builder’s reputation is key.”
Find a builder that has done a lot of work in the neighborhood, advises Wissink. “That’s a key piece of the puzzle, because things can look much different from neighborhood to neighborhood in terms of zoning, codes, soils, and topography,” he says. Ideally, the builder should have “a block-by-block, lot-by-lot understanding of the area.”
Marini believes there’s no substitute for taking a walk around the neighborhood. “You can determine how safe you feel just by walking around on a Saturday afternoon,” says Marini. “Talk to people who live there and visit all of the area amenities.”
New infill communities are often built in older neighborhoods where surrounding homes and buildings can show signs of deterioration. Peck counsels patience. “Typically private-sector investment, and investment by existing homeowners, follows on the heels of a new community,” she says. “It takes time for the surrounding neighborhood to turn around and revitalize.”
In general, in-town infill costs more than suburban infill, LaVallee says. “The closer you are to good schools, neighborhood restaurants and retail, your place of employment, a nice park, or public transportation, the more expensive the home.” It’s up to you to rank which factors are most important and which ones you can live without.
Signs of Good Design
When you walk through a new infill spec home, keep an eye out for design features that augment livability. A big one is window placement, which should preserve privacy, enhance views, and bring natural light into living spaces.
“Windows on the front and back but not the sides minimize sound transmission,” notes Peck. Progressive’s townhomes are designed with higher ceilings that allow for taller windows and transom glass above sliding doors.
High windows maintain privacy while admitting light. If operable, they also allow for cross ventilation. Many builders install frosted or obscured glass for privacy, especially in bathrooms, and plant trees between detached homes that are particularly close together.
Notice how quiet the home is when you’re inside. Good-quality windows and plenty of insulation go a long way toward minimizing street noise, and new detached homes should be equipped with those features.
Note what kind of on-site parking options are available, such as garages and carports. The home may have either a front-loaded garage or a rear-loaded garage that is accessed via an alley, depending on what is dictated by municipal regulations.
For the best results, the home should be designed to fit a specific lot, says LaVallee. “When builders force an existing plan on a lot, topography and other issues may result in a home whose front door is located high above the street,” says LaVallee. “The homeowners may not be able to easily access the garage and thus end up parking in the driveway.”
Architects can maximize light sources and views and minimize windows that would directly face a neighboring home or one that may be in poor condition, and make sure that the turning radius for the garage works. A successful collaboration between architect and builder can transform sites that are considered unbuildable into beautiful new homes.
If the appeal of established neighborhoods is not lost on you but you find that a new build is simply more accommodating to your needs, infill construction is an effective way to bridge the two. While there are some unique obstacles, careful consideration allows you to determine the benefits and the tradeoffs to make the most informed decision on whether or not infill construction is a fit for you.
Susan Bady-Holmes is a freelance writer and editor specializing in residential design and construction. She currently writes for NewHomeSource.com, Metal Architecture magazine and Metal Construction News.
Susan has also been an assignment editor for Consumers Digest magazine; handled media relations for home builders at Taylor Johnson Associates and written feature articles for Better Homes and Gardens’ Home Plan Ideas. Consequently, she has a wide range of experience in the consumer and business press and a deep understanding of the homebuilding business. She has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence.