Because Its Handy

Demographics and tastes have shifted recently to make density more acceptable, and indeed a big draw. The revival of interest in downtown living has been fueled by affluent retiring baby boomers looking for excitement and the convenience of having the dry cleaning delivered. They are selling off furniture, paring down, and trading in the chintz for a sleek Italian sofa bought off a showroom floor for the approximate cost of a small car. Young urban professionals, meanwhile, are clamoring to live in rehabilitated warehouses. Hardly a major or even a medium-sized city in the country today isn't offering trendy urban lofts.

The changing composition of the American household is also a factor. When there were two parents and two children throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a single-family home was an easy choice and made a lot of sense. Today, according to the U.S. Census, that kind of family represents only 24 percent of the population. The biggest category is people who are married or living together without children at 35 percent, followed by singles without children at 31 percent. Single parents make up 10 percent of the population. So, while the development of single-family subdivisions continues at a furious place, many developers have already realized that there are other needs in the marketplace that must be fulfilled, with a range of housing types offering different amenities and advantages. The relative simplicity of the mass market has been replaced by a "nation of niches," in the words of one indus try expert. Retiring baby boomers alone, looking for alternatives to the golf course-centered retirement community, are expected to top 78 million by 2030.

One of the biggest groups of customers looking for more compact, hassle-free living is refugees from sprawl: commuters frustrated by time-wasting gridlock. A 2004 poll conducted for the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America found that a commute of 45 minutes or less was a top priority in deciding where to live for 79 percent of respondents. Having a large house on more than an acre of land was important to 57 percent, but, when asked to choose between a large-lot subdivision and a community with a shorter commute and amenities such as shops and restaurants within walking distance, six in ten chose the latter. Among people planning to buy a home in the next three years, 87 percent said a shorter commute was their top priority.

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