McMansions Meet McFlips

2 story house in arizonaWhen Valley home prices rose with the interest rates in the mid-2000’s, tract builders turned to inexpensive land holdings in remote locations. Commuters sat on two-lanes in bumper-to-bumper traffic to traverse the raw desert that lay between their new planned communities and their jobs, reminding themselves how much more home they could buy for the same money, how shopping plazas were starting to locate nearby, and how great the new schools would be for their children.

Homes were clustered close together—not because there wasn’t room way out there, but because the builders could maximize profits by offering the same infill products they offered on 10-acre parcels in the suburbs for much less money, spending just a bit of the newfound profits on marketing the urban lifestyle in the beauty of the desert.

In a rush for remotely located affordable housing communities previously only created for retirees who didn’t need to commute, everyone moved in . . . from everywhere. Chain stores and chain restaurants moved in to serve . . . everyone. The first day of class for Justin and Jennifer resembled an overseas school for military families, where no student knows many others because the year before they were living hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Free time was burned in commuting to work, with a few precious hours for family activities.

A new generation of helicopter parents who had grown up with play dates themselves simply placed the kids on electronic leashes so they wouldn’t venture too far in the new neighborhood by bike or skateboard, meeting un-vetted kids whose moms might then invite the family over to barbecue. Heaven forbid they’d venture into the next walled community on their own. Walls are there to protect us, right?

Meanwhile, the houses of the seventies and eighties left behind in the suburbs had risen in value, but began to lose apparent value. Countertops were tile, not granite. Living spaces were carpeted, with tile only in “high-traffic areas.” To sell these homes, or just keep up with the Joneses, there was just one choice.

The remodeling business boomed. Suburban malls became outer loop malls, larger and just as easily accessible. The light rail arrived in Mesa, with a Park ‘n’ Ride station nearby, so for us personally, we now could reach a downtown game, concert or museum in minutes, without the hassle of parking there. So, we stayed put, upgraded the interior finishes, and turned an unused bedroom into a library with built-ins.

Beyond the outer freeway loops north and south of the Valley, crystalline condo projects rose from the desert floor, offering sleek, urban living spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows and sweeping city views . . . no, wait . . . sweeping views of flat desert dotted with semiconductor plants and dairies that had located outside the suburbs for a reason. The high-rises were upscale, modern and, in many locations, slow to populate. Urban clubs and a few shops sprung up on the main floors, taking advantage of tenant improvement and lease incentives, and they thrived, at least for the term of the incentives.

Our collective karma had us all trying to live more sustainably. The urban condo builders turned their attentions to the light rail corridor, including college campus areas of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, where they’d sell to young professionals or to investors who could rent them out to students.

Suddenly the McMansions were trending downward, both visually and ethically. Owners of relatively new homes with interiors emulating those of Tuscan villas didn’t know what to do. They had expensive, traditional cabinetry in dark woods topped with warm-toned Giallo Veneziano granite and the ubiquitous pictorial back-splash mural. They had floors of porcelain ceramic tile that sorta-kinda looked like wood flooring. It was too new to trash, and it certainly wouldn’t be sustainable to do so. Plus, the exterior facades were Mediterranean.

Enter the McFlips. The close-in planned community market is hot again. Modern Urbanism recognizes the value of communities with mixed use, although they define a “walkable community” as something much smaller than those of us in the west typically do. There’s something to be said for bike-friendly winding streets, boating lakes, and well-attended community events–especially when it’s also not far from the light rail stop.

Our thirty-year-old suburban homes are being remodeled again. But the bones of these homes are not urban, and short of removing the roof to raise wall heights, remodeling to sell has its limits. Or, at least, it should.

Recently, I started looking at resale homes in our area, now that interest rates are low enough that a larger, detached home with an RV space would total about the same as our townhouse with its two HOA fees and multiple storage spaces for our “stuff” and our trailer. One listing sold in November of 2016 for $270k and was placed back on the market a month later for $350k.

Aha! This house was the victim of a Quick-flipper. A super-quick closing and a couple weeks of replacing interior materials left this poor home with cheap appliances and modern finishes irrelevant to the architecture of the home.

A common, gray/black/white Chinese granite covers every horizontal surface. Back-splashes are gray and white glass, varying in pattern only. Tub-showers were left as acrylic instead of being replaced with porcelain fixtures with tile surrounds. Every room has the same style inexpensive, modern light fixtures, with kitchen and faucets following suit.

I checked another listing: the same granite was installed, only appliances were “stainless finish,” not stainless steel. At least the backsplash patterns were different. Every room was painted that familiar cool gray with gloss white crown molding on walls too short to benefit from them. Dark, cool gray floor tile was installed throughout, yet the east-west exposure brings in warm light all day long.

Beware the Move-up Quick-flipper. The moderate-sized, $400-$500k homes in the lake communities of our suburbs, mostly Spanish style with terracotta shingles or “California style” with dark wood trim and cedar shingles, are going through the same flipping process, emerging on the other side with prices of $600-800k and interiors in disturbingly stark contrast to their exteriors.

Now we know what’s being taught by the people who create the hand-scrawled signs at the end of freeway ramps offering to teach house flipping to anyone who will pay them. I’ll bet they have connections to specific materials warehouses to provide some of the “proven materials” to their new protégés, too, pocketing even more profits there. I worry that this trend will eliminate work that was available to younger designers trying to break out on their own, and impact the livelihood of our long-time materials suppliers, who strive to bring us new options in high-quality materials.

At least the listing prices of these homes are starting to come down. Maybe buyers touring multiple listings with the same, boring materials used in inappropriate ways are onto the Quick-flipper’s strategies. Kudos to the combination brokers-remodelers I know who are partnered with a designer and help those buying and selling homes do the best thing for their clients. I, for one, will continue to support you!

A professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at


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