Home demolitions have altered residential neighborhoods across King County, as small bungalows are replaced by large, boxlike houses that on average cost about three times as much.
As the Seattle area zips through a historic building boom, one of the most visible changes is a surge in bulldozing old, small houses to make way for big, new homes that typically carry much higher price tags.
Seattle on average now sees one home teardown every day. More houses have been demolished and replaced in the past 18 months than in the four previous years combined, a review of property data shows.
And a few suburbs are seeing local streets transformed by teardowns at an even higher rate.
The new three-story box homes going up where modest bungalows once stood have become a symbol of a hot real-estate market that has set record prices this summer.
The new homes usually sell for more than $1 million, about three times as much as the old one was worth, a review of sales figures shows. Even some companies profiting off the construction acknowledge the trend’s impact.
“It has a huge effect on the market,” said Anthony Maschmedt, whose Dwell Development does teardown jobs. “It’s pulling out inventory people can afford and replacing it with bigger product fewer people can afford.”
Even when a stack of townhomes, or two to three stand-alone homes, replaces a single house, each new unit is usually pricier than the original, but with a lot less space. Still, those added homes are a welcome sight for a region seeing a historic low number of homes for sale, which has created extreme competition that’s driven up prices.
Across King County, the average demolished home is a 1,300-square-foot, single-story structure built more than 70 years ago, with a small yard.
The replacement house is typically more than twice as large — 3,000 square feet and two or three stories — usually with a radically different, boxlike architecture.
Teardowns are on the rise in the suburbs, though not at the same pace as in Seattle, according to the data obtained from the King County Assessor’s Office.
The city with the most teardowns per capita is, not surprisingly, in the wealthier areas of Mercer Island, followed by Kirkland, Bellevue and Seattle. At the other end, there have been only a handful of teardowns in the relatively lower-income cities of Federal Way, Kent and Auburn.
How it works
Ask anyone in the real-estate industry about why homes are getting demolished and they’ll give you the same answer: The dirt underneath is now, in many cases, worth more than the home on it because available unbuilt land is increasingly scarce and luxury-home prices have skyrocketed.
Despite the costs, developers who specialize in teardown jobs say they can expect to make a 15 percent profit — typically a six-figure sum — for a flip that typically takes a year.
The actual bulldozing of the old home may take only a couple of hours, with as few as two workers — one to crunch it and the other to water it for dust control. Some materials from destroyed houses may be recycled; contractors typically case the home beforehand to salvage usable items, from appliances to doorknobs.
With the current construction frenzy, often the hardest part is finding workers.
“Everybody is 10 times busier than they were before,” Heather Cashman, founder of Axiom Design Build, said as she watched a house she bought in Magnolia get leveled last week. “Everybody’s so busy, they can just charge more. It’s expensive to build in this city.”
Cashman hired crews earlier this month to demolish a small 1940s blue house in Magnolia that she had been renting out since buying it last decade. Kids and adults gathered on the quiet street to watch as loud crunching noises and poofs of dust marked the smashing of each door, window and appliance. The shards were sorted into neat piles to be hauled away.
King County teardowns and construction since 2006
Old homes demolished totaled:
5.9 million square feet
New replacement homes totaled:
12.2 million square feet
Source: King County Assessor’s Office
Several passers-by seemed dismayed to learn they’ll have to deal with the noise and traffic for about nine months.
One neighbor recalled how, on another teardown just a few houses uphill, a contractor botched part of the job and wound up causing a flood that destroyed his basement.
This time, he said, he’ll “be on them like a tick on a dog” if anything goes awry.
The homes are typically flipped fast and for a healthy profit. Here’s a typical transformation: A small Ravenna home on 17th Avenue Northeast, built in 1929, was bought by developers for $450,000 in April 2015 after the owners died. The building company promptly demolished it, built a boxy modern home three times as large, and sold it to an Amazon executive this June for $1.435 million.
Sometimes, a buyer is already waiting in the wings; if not, it usually sells quickly anyway, real-estate agents say.
“We’re going to see more and more of it,” said Jen Harper, a real-estate agent with Coldwell Banker Bain. “If you’ve got a great lot and a great neighborhood, the land value is worth starting over.”
In the suburbs, the replacement homes usually get even bigger: One extreme example with a supersized final price tag was a smallish Medina house on Northeast 25th Street, bought for $750,000 in 2014. It was torn down and replaced with an angular 5,300-square-foot house that’s now worth $3.41 million.
Adding more homes
But there is a flip side to demolition’s impact on the housing market: In some cases, a single-family house is destroyed in favor of a stack of townhomes, or the lot is subdivided to make way for multiple houses.
“That’s a gain for affordability; even though the units may not even be as cheap as the single-family house that got demolished, there’s four of them,” said Dan Bertolet, a senior researcher focusing on housing for the nonprofit Sightline Institute, which supports density. He said both the overall increase in units and satiating the need for luxury homes “helps reduce pressure further down the market” because otherwise, those wealthier buyers would be bidding up the price of smaller homes.
The county’s data doesn’t show how many living units were added as the net result of new homes popping up to replace demolished ones. But Sightline looked at about 70 single-family homes in Seattle that were recently replaced by multiunit projects and found that among those, the new complex had 3.5 units on average.
Sightline concluded that the key to making the new replacement homes more affordable, not surprisingly, is to build as many new small units as possible.
Its data show that when two new homes replace one, each new unit is about 78 percent more expensive than the house that was destroyed. But when a house is replaced with six new homes, each new one is about the same price as the old one — albeit with less living space and probably no yard.
And in other cases, the new homes are replacing something that might not have been inhabitable.
“Some of the houses are really cool,” said Tim Secrest, who leads the Secrest Construction demolition crew. On the other hand, “Some are really, really, really run down, and neglected.”
He’s seen squatters and drug dens take over some older houses that wind up demolished.
Where the teardowns are
Hunting for teardowns in Seattle, a couple of neighborhoods stand out.
Ballard easily leads the pack — the east and west sides of the neighborhood combined to make up nearly one-quarter of all teardowns in Seattle since the start of 2015, a sharp rise from the prior several years, aided by recent rezones. The Central Area was second, with about 10 percent of all Seattle teardowns.
Areas with a large number of teardowns over the past decade also include traditionally middle-class neighborhoods that have seen prices surge in recent years: Crown Hill/North Greenwood, Queen Anne, Green Lake/Wallingford and Phinney Ridge/Fremont.
On the other end are largely outlying areas: Rainier Beach hasn’t had a single teardown since last year, and only seven in the last decade. North Capitol Hill, the Northgate area and Seward Park/Mount Baker haven’t had many, either.
Comparing the rate of teardowns today to the last building boom is difficult because the county’s data date back only to demolitions that began in 2006, and some projects take years to complete. But that information shows that last year there were 30 percent more teardowns across the county than during the prior peak in 2008.
“Everybody is trying to make up for lost time,” Maschmedt said. But because of the cyclical nature of construction, he predicted the rush to tear down and rebuild will “level out.”
This year both Seattle and the county are on pace to see about the same number of demolition jobs as last year.
Of the 3,700 teardowns across King County, the new homes have added a net increase of 6.3 million square feet of living space across 4,000 extra levels. Still, the demolished houses represent less than 1 percent of all houses in the region.
The larger size and boxlike design of many of the new buildings can make them look out of place in residential neighborhoods. It’s not uncommon to see a new three-story box sandwiched between a row of one-level bungalows that real-estate listings might describe as having “character.”
Still, Rick Mohler, a University of Washington architecture professor, notes the bungalows in places like Wallingford and Ballard that many now find charming were widely criticized as cheap when they began popping up in the early part of the 20th century.
“I’m not a big fan of a lot of these boxes, believe me. These house are just big,” Mohler said. But “part of this is a basic resistance to change. It happened when the bungalows were built, and it’s happening now. I think we’ll see other forms come back. Everything in design and fashion is cyclical.”
Mohler and some developers said many of the new homes are poorly designed and constructed and use the same materials to minimize cost and allow them to be built as quickly as possible, which is why so many come out looking the same.
Not all new homes are boxes. Cashman, for one, will be building a modern farmhouse in Magnolia.
“It’s just mortifying to see some of that box development that is happening,” said Cashman. “Most of the residential architecture in the city is salvageable and beautiful, and there’s something to be said for keeping that history here.”