Not Keeping Up With the Joneses

"Keeping up with the Joneses" is an idiom referring to the comparison to one's neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods. To fail to "keep up with the Joneses" is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.”

​​As I look around in various American suburban communities, it is easy to see how everyone wants what the neighbors have. The prevalence of the “tract home” community is apparently not just an economic advantage to production builders via economies of scale, but also satisfies the desire or need for people to conform to what their neighbors and friends have. You see it (especially in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic) when driving through newer neighborhoods – rows of houses with the same elevation in two or three shades of brick, with a sled leaned up on the door in winter and a wreath on the front door in summer.

Tune in to any of the TV home buying shows, and you’ll hear the mantra of featured home buyers:

“I want space for entertaining”

“We like an open floor plan”

“I won’t live in a house without granite countertops and stainless steel appliances”

Really? It makes you wonder if anyone has their own opinion about style and personal needs.

The old 1961 song, “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds (featured as the theme song to Showtime’s “Weeds”) says it best.

Now, of course, some of the popular options on homes are popular because they are functional, cost effective, or stylish. There’s nothing wrong with choosing them for your home, as long as you really want them and they fit your lifestyle.

Let’s explore some of these perceived “needs”:

Grand Entry/Foyer

Often, homeowners romanticize their home and how they will use it. Realtors can tell you that people imagine their life in the house with the kids frolicking in the yard in perfect harmony with the pets; friends will gather around the hearth and tell stories of magical moments in life, etc. Many of us have the image of Scarlett O’Hara coming down the grand staircase in Tara in the movie “Gone with the Wind”, and therefore insist on the grand entry foyer with the big stairs coming down toward the front door.

Drama aside, a grand open, two-story foyer (or great room for that matter) is a huge waste of space if you’re limited in square footage. The open space can rob the house of precious living space and will add expense when heating or cooling your home.

For those familiar with feng shui (a system of laws considered to govern spatial arrangement and orientation in relation to the flow of energy (chi or qi), and whose favorable or unfavorable effects are taken into account when siting and designing buildings”), the staircase facing the main door presents a similar feng shui challenge to a back door aligned with the main door (direct door alignment). In both cases, the chi is forced to leave the space quickly and is not given the opportunity to settle in and “harmoniously nourish” your home.

The main door is called "The Mouth of Chi" in feng shui, as this is how the house absorbs its much needed chi, or energy nourishment. When a staircase is facing the main door directly, the feng shui energy rushes up quickly to either the lower, or the higher floor, thus leaving the main floor without feng shui energy nourishment.

The 3-Car Garage

There’s no definitive formula for how big a garage homeowners actually need. It used to be that a two car garage meant that “you had arrived”, but now three is the benchmark. If you have the space on your lot without crowding your house, a large garage is nice for car storage. Another consideration (if you have the space) is that a partially detached garage is a great feature for fire safety and energy efficiency (the heat of the cars in the summer does not permeate the living area of a house as it would if the garage is under the house).

In my neighborhood, some folks have 5 car garages because they actually have that many cars. On the flip-side, there are homes with 3-car garages in which the homeowners can’t park any of their cars in the garage because (a) the garage opening or space is not big enough to park their large vehicles (the obligatory Suburban is a good example), or worse yet (b) the garage is used for storage, so the cars have to sit out on the driveway in the sweltering heat of summer or the icy days of winter.

Storage in a garage is not optimal as (especially in 10,000 square foot homes) there are other spaces in a house to store “junk” and also because garages are generally not designed to be insect or pest-proof.

If you have a choice in how large your garage is and how it’s built, I recommend that you…

  • Build a garage to suit your needs while considering resale

  • Consider the option of a detached or partially detached garage

  • Make the door openings 9 feet wide if you have the space

  • Plan for storage elsewhere in the house (basement, attic, storage room?)

  • Realize that cars stored in garages actually last longer and look better while possibly qualifying for larger insurance discounts

The Brick and/or Stone Façade:

First, let’s tackle the word “façade”. In addition to the most relevant definition, “the face of a building, especially the principal front that looks onto a street or open space”, it also means “an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality”. So, I’m just saying, why be unoriginal and put on an outward appearance that is intended to conceal a less pleasant reality? We see a lot of this in the Mid-Atlantic – not so much in South Florida.

There’s nothing wrong with brick and stone on the front of a house, but wouldn’t it be nicer all around the house? What kind of message does it send to have a different façade than the rest of the house? “We ran out of money”, or “we changed our mind”? If you don’t want to do stone or brick all around, at the very minimum, why not consider the same brick or stone all around the house at the water table?

There are also some more original and equally classy, high quality, equally durable materials available now, including James Hardie fiber cement siding, stucco, etc. The point is, make it yours! Let’s not just keep up with the Joneses. Let’s make the Joneses scratch their head in wonder and awe. Do something original that you actually like.

Open Floor Plan

Now, I know that just about everyone now wants an “open floor plan”, and that’s just fine – as long as the homeowner considers how they really live in their home. It’s not about the fantasy of how they live – it’s the reality. If you have a choice and are considering designing a house with an open floor plan, ask yourself these questions (your architect will ask themselves more technical questions when designing an open floor plan):

  • Do you have a noisy household? Do you mind if the kids are screaming all around the house and grandpa has the TV volume blaring? If not, you may not have the need for separation of spaces and an open floor plan may work fine for you.

  • Do you have a neat and tidy family? If you don’t want to see Johnny’s toys in the Family Room from the Dining Room, or you don't want to see the dishes in the Kitchen sink from the Foyer, you may want to reconsider how open that floor plan is.

The aesthetics and drama of an open floor plan can be appealing to many, but I prefer some separation in spaces. I like the privacy, coziness, and classic elegance of some separation. I also like the additional walls for hanging artwork and designing the spaces in slightly different themes. You can create the illusion of openness with glass transom windows, separators, furnishings, etc. if you don’t want a truly open floor plan.

Finished Basement

This is not of concern for our South Florida clients, but in the DC area, the finished basement is a popular option for homebuyers and those building custom homes. However, just because the finished basement is so coveted, doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

On some home sites, a basement is critical, but it can be unfinished! It’s a great place for utilities, storage, home gyms, etc.

I know my Realtor partners may disagree and reference the increased property value of a finished basement when it comes time for resale. I urge homeowners to think about how they will use the basement. If you’re concerned about resale, please realize that what you won’t get in increased home values at time of sale, you would have saved by not finishing the basement in the first place. Besides, it’s an added value to the homebuyer as they can finish that basement to suit their needs and tastes.

If you have no use for a basement (finished or unfinished), ask your homebuilder and architect about the option of building the house on a slab. You’ll need to find another place for utilities, but you’ll never have to worry about leaky basements, spiders and other pests, and other potential drawbacks of basements.

Granite Countertops:

It’s a bit comical at times to hear homeowner demands for granite countertops. Don’t get me wrong – granite is a great material, but it’s not always the “best” nor is it generally the “best option”. Quartz can be a superior product with more design options, though it also can be more expensive. There’s also marble, tile, wood, concrete, stainless steel, and other materials that have been used for countertops.

Let’s focus here on quartz vs. granite. It is worth noting that granite is quarried directly from the earth and, when used for countertops, it comes from a single piece that is cut and polished. Quartz countertops contain crushed quartz mixed with resin in a ratio of 93% quartz to 7% resin. They are manufactured in a variety of colors and patterns.

As with granite, quartz countertops have pros and cons, including:

  • Quartz countertops can be stronger than granite in that they’re more flexible. This makes them easier to work with during the installation process.

  • Quartz is “naturally antimicrobial” in that it is non-porous and does not ever require any sealing or maintenance. It will not stain. Since I’m a fan of Windex for cleaning just about everything (right or wrong), I love that it’s perfectly safe for cleaning quartz.

  • Quartz is heavier than granite, so it will require professional installation.

  • Quartz countertops (because of their colors and patterns) are less likely to show seams than granite. With granite, the natural veins and colors in the stone makes seams appear more visible.

The pros and cons of granite include:

  • Since it is a natural stone that is mined out of the earth, the appearance of granite is not uniform. For some, this will be a benefit while others will see it as a drawback.

  • Granite countertops will need to be sealed before they are used and this will need to be repeated year after year for as long as you own the countertop. Granite is a porous stone and is therefore not stain-resistant unless it is properly sealed. Sadly, Windex is not recommended for cleaning granite. You should also avoid cutting citrus on a granite countertop as the acid will degrade the seal and possibly damage the stone.

  • Granite is a natural rock and can break or chip if subjected to heavy abuse.

  • Granite makes it harder to hide the seams in installation.

The Stainless Steel Appliances

I have just a few things to say about stainless steel appliances: they are not “stainless”, and they are generally not compatible with magnets – so, you may not be able to display your kids’ artwork on the refrigerator. If you like them, buy them, but be weary of keeping up with the Joneses. There are many options for appliance finishes and colors. It’s quite possible that stainless may one day be as dated as “harvest gold”. But you should get what you like and enjoy it.

In closing, some of the popular options on homes are popular because they are functional, cost effective, or stylish. There’s nothing wrong with choosing them for your home, as long as you really want them and they fit your lifestyle. After all, unless you do a lot of entertaining in your open floor plan house, you may never see the Joneses in your kitchen with granite countertops as you come down your grand double staircase. They might never know that you’ve kept up with them.

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