Renovated Boston Row House and Providence Infill House, David Sisson Architecture
Analysts are debating the degree to which the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a mass exodus out of America’s largest cities in search of room to breathe (literally)—more room for physically-distanced social interactions and for the Zoom home offices that so many people have been forced into. Here in Rhode Island though, the median home price increased by 13 % in October 2020 over its level one year earlier, and realtors reported buyers arriving in droves from New York City and Massachusetts.
Regardless of what analysts decide, for decades now, exorbitant costs have slowly priced folks out of the country’s largest cities. Redfin’s data shows that, in 2019, even before the pandemic, people in pricey metropolitan areas searched for homes in more affordable areas more than ever before in recorded history.
Many of those searching—young to middle-aged professional as well as empty nesters—are looking to retain aspects of their urban lifestyles and enjoy big city cultural amenities. For them, the suburbs hold no appeal and they want to live in the city. This presents a dilemma in older, built-up cities like Providence and Boston, where almost every square foot has already been developed and real estate inventory is low. Newcomers have two options—1) wait for an existing building to become available, engage in a bidding war to buy it, then spend time and money renovating it; or 2) identify a difficult-to-find empty lot and build a new house.
Planners and architects call the second approach “infill”. Many people assume that it is impossible to find an empty lot in the city. But, with some research and perseverance, it is possible to find a diamond in the rough. Realtors can be asked to look for empty lots in specific parts of the city. A prospective owner can also look for empty lots by searching on Google Maps (satellite view) or driving through the neighborhood. With the address for the empty lot handy, a search on the city’s online tax assessor database (usually considered free public information) will yield the current owner of the property and information about how the land is zoned. An architect can help prospective buyers interpret this information and evaluate if the desired house can be built on the lot. Even in cases where zoning may not appear suitable—where, for example, a lot is smaller than the size typically required for new residential construction—an architect can approach the Building Department to gauge the likelihood of receiving a variance (an approved exception to zoning or build code rules). Progressive building departments often do want empty lots used, so they are likely to give permission (with certain conditions). Armed with this knowledge, you can make an informed decision about buying the lot, and collaborate with an architect to create an urban home of your liking.