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RISMEDIA, May 10, 2007-(MCT)-The suburban garage, dominating the front of American homes for decades, is moving to the back of more Sacramento-area houses as cost-cutting builders try to squeeze more housing onto the same old acre.

City planners, fans of older-house architecture and some buyers couldn’t be more pleased.

“It reminds me more of a very urban look,” said Donald Grant, who is moving into a West Sacramento suburban house with a garage in the rear instead of the front.

The housing boom’s high land prices and growing need to sell lower-priced houses are driving the garage out of sight in several new capital-area home projects. In Roseville, Folsom, Natomas, Rancho Cordova and West Sacramento, garages are filling space once occupied by the backyard and allowing for narrower lots. This alignment between market forces and so-called “smart growth” principles brings builders more income per acre while creating what some say are more pleasing residential street scenes.

“What happens is you’re looking at the home and the garage is not taking up half of the front, so you get a completely different streetscape on it,” said Mark Levens, vice president for sales at the Sacramento division of John Laing Homes. Newport Beach-based Laing is building and has sold nearly 300 houses in Natomas and Folsom with rear garages and alleys.

For decades, until World War II, homebuilders traditionally put the garage in the rear with a driveway leading to it. But as cars came to dominate a new suburban lifestyle, the garage moved front and center in home design.
That stirred criticism that long rows of protruding garages aesthetically diminishes street life. Yet much as urban theorists have tried to minimize garages — most notably in housing developments such as Laguna West in Elk Grove — it’s taken soaring land costs and a push for lower sales prices to definitively capture the attention of homebuilders.

“What they’re doing is taking the land they own and redoing it with back alley-load houses,” said Kathryn Boyce, analyst for Costa Mesa-based Hanley Wood Market Intelligence. “It allows them to put more houses, more lots on a piece of land. Everybody is putting a pretty spin on it, that it looks more like the olden days.

“But there is a need for this, with the way housing prices are,” she said. “Prices are still very unattainable for a lot of buyers.”

Capital-area builders are turning to a variety of ways to push the garage out of sight — using detached garages and alleys, garages built into the rear of houses, side-entry garages and interior clusters of garages less visible from the street. Though it’s still a small percentage of new suburban housing, the style is getting easier to find in metropolitan Sacramento as city and regional planners also push for more closely packed urban-style home projects.

“A lot of this product type evolved from builders in the Bay Area doing more infill where the cost of land is much higher,” said Roseville Planning Director Paul Richardson.

Roseville has pushed for rear garages in parts of its West Roseville Specific Plan, primarily in a new community builders call WestPark.

“The intent is to de-emphasize garages as a street front and push architecture and porches forward as a way to activate the street and kind of promote that walking environment,” Richardson said.

National builders Pulte Homes and Lennar Corp. are the first there to build houses with rear garages on two sides of WestPark’s planned village center. Three new two-story Pulte model homes already reveal a look that harkens back to pre-1950s neighborhoods.

“We built this in Dixon at (a project called) Valley Glen, and it sold well for the same demographic,” said Roseville-based Pulte marketing analyst Amy Larsen. “All your attention doesn’t go to the garage. You’re looking at the cute house.”

Pulte’s target for 90 detached houses is young professionals and other first-time buyers, with sales prices from $351,000 to $375,000.

In West Sacramento, New Jersey-based K. Hovnanian Homes is aiming for the same crowd with 160 houses with rear garages. Many are on narrow lots with small side patios instead of yards, a factor that keeps most priced in the low $300,000s. Front views reveal two-story houses in styles more typical of older neighborhoods.

Grant, the new homeowner moving into West Sacramento, said a co-worker from London said his house bears a resemblance to homes there.

But not all buy into the look.

“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” said Ian Cornell, a spokesman for Hovnanian Homes. “There are still people who want the garage out front and the cars out front.”

At a KB Home rear-garage subdivision in Natomas, one homeowner said she misses the sociability of garages out front. She said it’s harder to meet neighbors when they all drive their cars into the rear of the house and go directly inside.

Nonetheless, Roseville’s Richardson has big hopes for Pulte’s urban-style design with porches facing streets instead of garages.

“While (affordability) is clearly going to get people into the market, over time as the neighborhood matures you hope it’s a more walkable neighborhood and you actually know your neighbors and walk to the neighborhood market and Starbucks,” he said. “That’s the whole concept; you don’t need to get in your car and drive everywhere.”

Copyright © 2007, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.