Stop Fetishizing Old Homes

Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure.

Illustration of two old houses and a "For Sale" sign
George S. Zimbel / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: M. Nolan Gray is a professional city planner and a housing researcher at UCLA. He is the author of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It

In early August, 254 Tamarisk Drive went on the Bay Area housing market asking $850,000, and it sparked a bidding war that topped out at $1 million. The 1968 four-bedroom ranch, clad with half-century-old fixtures and set behind a patchy lawn, was not only unremarkable but had actually been “fire charred” before it was put up for sale. And yet its buyers likely got a good deal: According to the real-estate-listing site Redfin, the home could now be worth as much as $1.36 million.

This extreme case highlights a housing market in crisis: Americans are paying ever more exorbitant prices for old housing that is, at best, subpar and, at worst, unsafe. Indeed, the real-estate market in the U.S. now resembles the car market in Cuba: A stagnant supply of junkers is being forced into service long after its intended life span.

In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it.

According to Census Bureau data compiled by House Method, the median home nationwide is now 39 years old, up nearly 20 percent over the past decade alone. In the northeastern states of New York and Massachusetts, the median is much higher, at 63 and 59, respectively, while out West, in Nevada and Arizona, your typical home is still barely old enough to rent a car.

This isn’t an East-West thing, however: The median home in California is roughly 50 percent older than that in the Carolinas. A typical home in San Francisco is now 15 years older than its New Orleans counterpart, not because San Francisco is older than New Orleans, but because the former is so slow to permit new development.

Across the country—but particularly along the coasts—barriers to construction mean that housing production has plummeted, such that we now face a national demand-supply gap of 6.8 million homes. To break even over the next 10 years, the National Association of Realtors found, we would need to build at least 700,000 new homes each year.

In the meantime, we’re stuck with a lot of old housing that, to put it bluntly, just kind of sucks. A stately Victorian manor in the Berkshires is one thing. But if you live in a Boston triple-decker, a kit-built San Jose bungalow, or a Chicago greystone, your home is the cheap housing of generations past. These structures were built to last a half century—at most, with diligent maintenance—at which point the developers understood they would require substantial rehabilitation. Generally speaking, however, the maintenance hasn’t been diligent, the rehabilitation isn’t forthcoming, and any form of redevelopment is illegal thanks to overzealous zoning.

You might think uneven floors or steep stairwells have “character.” You’ll get no argument here. But more often than not, old housing is simply less safe. Until 1978, lead was common in house paint, and until the 1980s, in water pipes. Although the substance has been banned in new housing, the CDC estimates that 24 million old homes are still coated in lead paint—including the many Levittown homes built in the 1950s—while an estimated 9.2 million homes still receive water through lead pipes.

Or take fire safety: Electrical fires alone account for one in 10 residential fires, killing nearly 500 Americans each year. These fires are mostly a function of improper and aging wiring, which is endemic in older homes. Worse yet, many older homes lack the materials needed to stop a blaze once it starts; back in 2016, a single misplaced cigarette might have been what sent San Francisco’s Graywood Hotel—a 116-year-old single-room-occupancy building that housed approximately 77 people—up in flames.

Even when old housing is not killing its occupants, much of it is exclusionary by design. Before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and recent amendments to the Fair Housing Act, standard elements such as ramps and elevators—as well as more subtle accessibility features such as automatic doors and wheelchair-friendly units—were not required, and so were rarely provided. As a result, old housing typologies like New York City’s walk-up tenements end up trapping many thousands of seniors in place, while limiting housing opportunities for many thousands more.

Here in Los Angeles, we are busy retrofitting nearly 14,000 dingbats, those low-slung, 1950s apartment buildings that could very well collapse with the next earthquake. Like many Angelenos, I’ve come to appreciate their charms. But those resources could have been better spent replacing pedestrian-hostile carports and aging units with the street-level storefronts and additional apartments that our city so desperately needs.

Yet like most U.S. cities, Los Angeles has made redeveloping much of its aging housing stock all but impossible. Between apartment bans, strict density limits, and minimum parking requirements, taking an old home and turning it into an apartment building, or even two or three modern townhouses, is in many cases illegal. Much of this flows from our national prejudice against new housing, especially if it’s billed as “luxury.” Attend a hearing for any given housing proposal and you’re sure to hear baseless speculation that new housing is shoddily constructed or unsafe.

The fact is that those much-lamented cookie-cutter five-over-one apartment buildings cropping up across the U.S. solve the problems of old housing and then some. Modern building codes require sprinkler systems and elevators, and they disallow lead paint. New buildings rarely burn down, rarely poison their residents, and nearly always include at least one or two units designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

And despite what old-home snobs may believe, new housing is also just plain nice to live in—in many ways an objective improvement on what came before.

Noise is now appropriately recognized as one of the biggest quality-of-life issues in cities. As I write this in the living room of my 1958 Los Angeles dingbat, I can hear the neighbor on my right shouting over the phone and the neighbor on my left enjoying reggaeton at maximum volume. The distant hum of the 405 is forever in the background. Back when I lived in a mid-2000s apartment building in D.C.—a relatively old building in our pro-growth capital—I had no such distractions. Double-paned windows kept out virtually all street noise, even on a busy downtown intersection, while fiberglass insulation kept neighbors from bothering one another. I wasn’t even certain that I had neighbors until we bumped into each other several months after I moved in.

Modern homes and apartment buildings are not only far better insulated—they also feature modern HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) technologies, such that homes can be warmed and cooled without using nearly as much energy as their older counterparts. Given that heating and cooling account for nearly half of all household energy use in the U.S., the savings from new housing could have serious implications for climate change. That little space heater struggling to keep your drafty old apartment warm—to say nothing of your window AC unit—isn’t just unsightly. It’s also a climate failure.

In smaller ways, too, new construction is nicer. Bathrooms and closets are larger, as are kitchens, which are no longer walled off from the rest of the home. Modern windows let you bathe a unit in natural light, without temperature or noise concerns. Smaller unit sizes—think studios and one-bedrooms—better reflect shrinking households. And in-unit laundry is more common now, as are balconies—amenities that have only grown in value amid recurring COVID-related shutdowns.

For comparison’s sake, consider the Japanese approach. The average Japanese home is demolished 30 years after construction, the realistic life span of a typical cheaply built structure. The Japanese have virtually no “used home” market: Fully 87 percent of Japanese home sales are new, compared with 11 to 34 percent in the West. As a result, most Japanese households enjoy a new house or apartment with all the modern amenities and design innovation that entails, including ever-improving earthquake standards. And this steady supply of new housing has helped make Tokyo one of the most affordable cities in the world, despite a growing population.

All that construction consumes a fair share of resources, and housing in Japan doesn’t double as an investment vehicle. But I, for one, would take that trade-off.