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Reviewing the Future

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
I often use this space to speculate on issues affecting the trends of condo living in Maine’s future. Sometimes our view of the future is aided by a glance back at the past. Therefore, I would like to revisit some of the topics we considered in last year’s articles and comment on events that have occurred since. The issues we will review are trends in Maine condominiums and environment..
Today’s residential market is seeing a significant increase in the inventory of condos available. In Greater Portland there are almost as many condos as single family homes for sale. The usual suspects are the reasons: The population demographic is seeing a rise in retirees (read baby boomers) who are empty nesters seeking fewer maintenance responsibilities, more convenience, and less isolation.
With rising costs of urban land in high-density, popular city areas, condos are often the answer. Many of the state’s large, urban, single-family homes have long since been converted to multi-family apartments, which in turn have now been condoized. In-town condos also cater to the dislike of long commutes in winter weather and the rising cost of gasoline.
This trend has been recognized by city planners. Two months ago the Portland City Council unanimously approved a zoning change allowing a developer to build a 26-unit, in-town condominium complex with 42 fewer parking spaces than usually required by city ordinance. This four-story building will have dedicated parking spaces for shared cars that will be owned, insured, and maintained by the home-owners’ association. This is the area’s first officially sanctioned car-sharing program and an example of the city’s effort to allow less parking and reduce car volume in the city. This thinking was developed first in Europe in the 1940’s.
Southern and Coastal Maine property values are faring much better than the national market in these challenging days as shown by the 2007 statistics. York and Cumberland counties’ average house prices were $300,000, with single-family dwellings and condo units nearing parity. This is due in large part to the sales of high-end luxury condos in the Greater Portland area. In early 2008, the current listings show the average condominium unit is asking $318,000, with single-family homes averaging $380,000.
This favorable housing market persists in spite of the poor national rankings that Maine economic and business environment consistently receive. Quality of life is often used to explain this apparent discrepancy. Even medical services for the aging population are frequently touted as part of the answer. In 2007 the Maine Medical Center was ranked by US News and World Reports as one of “America’s Best Hospitals.”  It was ranked in the top 50 for heart surgery and orthopedics.
One of the negative trends that both Maine and the rest of the country experienced in 2007 was the rising costs of oil-based construction products. This will not be changing in the foreseeable future. Those associations that have been deferring maintenance projects hoping the prices will drop will be disappointed. The Association of General Contractors of America has recently reported that renovation costs in 2008 are expected to increase more than twice the consumer inflation index. This will spell trouble for old reserve fund budgets.
Speaking of rising, do not forget the ocean. Whatever your politics, the signs of global warming and its consequences are becoming more difficult to ignore. For Maine, with much of its most valuable condominium real estate bordering the Atlantic, keeping an eye on the sea level will become even more important. If you have any doubt, check out this web page (www. crafted by the National Resources Council of Maine. It visually shows many of the more populated Maine seacoast areas and the effect of small rises in the sea level. It explains why homes and condominium buildings are being lifted and placed on new concrete pile foundations all along the beaches of Maine.
Environmental trends in Maine are not all bad. In fact, many are encouraging. A developer of an over-50 community in Topsham demonstrated considerable environmental responsibility when he incorporated many “green” design elements into his homes and reduced the planned 18-hole golf course to a 9-hole course to minimize the run-off effects of fertilizer on the adjacent Cathance River. The unused land was then turned over to a land trust for nature trails and an ecological center providing environmental programming for the local school systems, in which community residents could participate.
The developer recognized that his customer base had increasing interest in being stewards of the land and in spending some of their retirement time acting as mentors and volunteers. Similarly, he sought to promote hybrid cars in the community, offering a free Toyota Prius to home buyers. The sign read, “Buy a ‘green’ house, get a ‘green’ car.”