Northeast Johnson County starting over with teardowns

Updated: 2013-11-13T19:18:25Z


The Kansas City Star

By the time Kraig Kohring was finished, he’d spent well over a million dollars on his new home.

Not unusual, if the attorney was moving to an upscale subdivision in southern Johnson County like Hallbrook or Cedar Creek, or closer in, Mission Hills.

But Kohring’s 4,500-square-foot dream home is in Prairie Village. It shares a street with the modest ranches and split-levels that hatched the Baby Boom generation in the 1950s.

So why was he willing to pay the hefty additional cost of owning a house, tearing it down and replacing it with another?

“It’s all about location,” Kohring said. “We really do love the neighborhood and I don’t think we could find what we have in Mission Hills. I know we couldn’t find it in southern Johnson County.”

Northeast Johnson County — particularly Fairway, Prairie Village, Mission Hills and old Leawood north of 95th Street — is where it’s at in the metro when it comes to the teardown phenomenon.

After a lull caused by the 2008 recession, the pace of teardowns has picked up considerably. People drawn to the area’s quality of life and convenient access are willing to pay $200,000 or more for a functional house, raze it and then drop another $650,000 or more on a new home.

The phenomenon is happening in the gamut of neighborhoods — expensive Mission Hills and more modest but tony neighborhoods in Fairway and Prairie Village. It’s bringing back and retaining young families and reinforcing property values in communities prized for their location and stability.

It’s also poses some challenges as larger story and one-half or two-story homes replace original houses, many of them small two- and three-bedroom ranch-style dwellings. Cities and home owner groups have worked to embrace the trend while keeping intact the character of the neighborhood that made them appealing in the first place.

“Out of all of our first-ring suburbs, northeast Johnson County has the strongest market,” said Dean Katerndahl, who manages the First Suburbs Coalition for the Mid-America Regional Council. “It’s close to the Plaza, downtown and all that, and the communities are perceived as positive places.

“It does say something about the quality of the area that people are willing to pay a premium. They’re paying for a home and a lot to get a lot, so the neighborhood must be attractive to do that.”

Over the past decade, 44 teardown homes have been built in Fairway alone, including eight so far this year. This in a town that’s one-mile square with 1,800 houses and 4,000 residents.

“I can see this trend continuing,” said Bill Sandy, the community’s building and codes official. “As of now, there’s still a lot of interest and people asking about houses.”

Leawood has had 24 teardowns this year, double last year. Most have been north of 95th Street.

“It’s a good location,” said Richard Coleman, Leawood’s director of community development. “You’re halfway between downtown and way out in the suburbs. … It’s very important to us because it says this is a great community to live and raise a family.”

Mayor Ron Shaffer of Prairie Village agreed his community’s location near such urban attractions was a major reason why teardowns were occurring there.

One of the more encouraging benefits, he noted, is teardowns allow growing families to stay in Prairie Village rather than relocate farther south in Johnson County.

“Most people doing it are younger families,” he said. “Our largest problem for years was we didn’t have enough second- or third-time buyer homes so they had to move south or west to get larger homes.”

Mission Hills City Administrator Courtney Christensen said there are 14 teardowns underway in her community with another four pending.

“The way we live today is different from the 1920s or even the 1950s,” she said. “People who can afford these prices want certain amenities and they are willing to pay for them.”

The “golden triangle,” as builder Kurt Ellenberger called it, extends south of Shawnee Mission Parkway roughly between Mission and State Line Roads to about 95th Street.

“People like the neighborhood feel and they’re maybe tired of the sameness out south and the traffic,” Ellenberger said. “It costs more to tear down and build, but this way they get what they want.

“They’re not only making a financial commitment, but they want to live there. They like the location and the area makes them feel good.”

That’s what originally drew Kohring and his family to Homestead Drive in Prairie Village. In 1999, they bought a 2,000-square-foot, split-level built in the mid-1950s for $232,000.

Over the next nine years they invested another $100,000 in the house to repair its foundation, roof, driveway and other big-ticket items.

Then, they decided to look into remodeling and adding a small bathroom on the main floor. One improvement idea led to another and by the time they were through the size of the house was essentially being doubled. The builder estimated the cost at $535,000.

“We decided if we’re doing it, let’s get it to where we can live here forever,” Kohring said. “We ended up building a relatively modest home of 4,200 to 4,500 square feet.”

The price tag came to $850,000, including the demolition. Combined with what he originally paid for the house in 1999 plus all its renovation work, the total cost for remaining in his ideal neighborhood exceeded $1 million.

Kohring has no regrets going the teardown route, but wouldn’t recommend demolishing your own home to do it.

“You take all the equity you spend doing the one house and put it in a big hole,” he observed. “You have to pay off the mortgage and do full new financing. It’s the least efficient and most expensive way to get a new home.”

The typical teardown house is a smaller two- or three-bedroom home built in the 1950s that’s located on a larger lot. The price can range from $100,000 to $300,000 or more depending on the location.

“If you can buy a house that hasn’t been touched for 40 or 50 years, that’s a better buy,” said builder Skip Hensler. “If people have been investing in it over the years, it brings up the cost.

“Location is everything. Prairie Village, Leawood, Mission, all are great locations. The next thing is the choice of lot. That’s very important. You want one that works right with the home, has great views and drains properly.

“Third is to design a house to that lot,” Hensler said. “You can’t force a house to a lot and it doesn’t work well.”

A popular location for teardowns are lots in Prairie Village and Mission Hills that back to golf courses. Several teardowns in recent years have gone up along 71st Street in Prairie Village with backyards opening onto the Indian Hills Country Club.

“Any golf course is good and some of the houses have unobstructed views to the north,” Hensler said.

Since the new homes are generally significantly larger, the existing house and its foundation are completely removed before the new home is built. The only aspect of the previous house that remains is the water, sewer and power connections.

Steve Hodes, another builder, said it costs about $10,000 to demolish a house and prepare the site for new construction. Large bulldozers knock the old house into its foundation, grind up the debris and haul it away.

The cost is about 30 percent higher if the owner wants to recycle materials using organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, he said.

While it costs more to tear a house down and start over rather than renovate, Ellenberger there are benefits that are worth the price.

“They get want they want including a well-engineered foundation and energy savings,” he said. “When it comes to remodeling, you’re compromising all the time.”

Mack Colt specializes in building teardown homes in Leawood, Prairie Village and Fairway. He’s built 50 such homes over the past decade.

“It’s picked up over the last couple of years like the rest of the housing market,” he said. “The biggest thing is property values seem to hold better closer in. It’s the location, location thing.”

About half of Colt’s work is building speculative homes, the remainder custom-building for clients. He usually pays between $225,000 and $325,000 to purchase the house, and the new homes built on the site run around $850,000 and range in size from 3,500 to 4,500 square feet.

“People who do teardowns are looking for the feel of a neighborhood,” he said. “The fact the houses are different and not cookie-cutter. They have different architecture compared to newer subdivisions.”

Colt helped Matt and Katie Fitzgerald find their place in old Leawood. The growing family now lives in a 5,500-square-foot, five-bedroom home in Leawood on Belinder Road that formerly was occupied by a small ranch house from the 1950s.

Colt guided them through the entire process, from buying the old house for $225,000 to building their new home.

“We were not 100 percent familiar with all the rules and Mack was the best at knowing those rules,” Katie Fitzgerald said. “My advice would be to engage a builder first before buying a lot.”

The Fitzgeralds had lived in old Leawood for 10 years and like the neighborhood. After remodeling their former house a number of times, they decided it was time to move into something bigger after having their third child.

“The economics made sense to build a new house,” she said. “It’s easier to start from scratch rather than work with old foundations. You never know what you’ll get into.”

Their new home was built to blend with the character of the neighborhood. The 1 1/2 story home was designed in the Cape Cod-style and features a stone facade.

“The character and quality of the houses around us can’t be replicated out south, and we like being a 20-minute drive for anywhere in the city,” she said.

And that makes it important to make sure the new homes fit with the character of the neighborhood.

Towns have become more savvy about teardowns in recent years. When the practice began in earnest a decade or so ago, there were some controversial proposals that led to more strict guidelines.

Each community has its own guidelines for teardowns, and often homeowner associations add their own rules as well.

Builders say Mission Hills is the most rigorous with guidelines that get into the actual look of the new home. Other communities are more interested in how tall the new house is and what percentage of the lot it occupies.

“Mission Hills regulations are unbelievably hard,” Hodes said. “We often need to put a pole in the ground of each corner and then Mission Hills inspectors come and look to make sure its the right height. Leawood used to not do a good job, but now it submits plans to neighborhood groups.”

Colt said Leawood, the city and its subdivisions, focus more on height and massing, and how large the house looks from the curb.

“Fairway has some height restrictions, but it’s more focused on the actual look of the home,” he said. “Prairie Village is the loosest of the three from any standpoint, but it depends on what subdivision you’re at.”

Ronald Nelson, president of the Prairie Village Homes Association, said his area of 1,500 homes in central Prairie Village welcomes teardowns as long as the design of the new home is appropriate for the neighborhood.

“This year, there have been five or six either actual or anticipated teardowns,” he said.

The homes association has worked for the past seven years to make sure the new homes fit with the architectural integrity of the neighborhood, Nelson said.

While the city limits the height of a new house to no more that 1 1/2 stories, that loose definition has caused problems. Nelson said his association lost a lawsuit seven years ago when someone built a larger house because the judge decided that height restriction was ill-defined.

There was some discussion of creating an architectural review board, but it was shelved when the recession hit and teardown building came to a temporary standstill.

Shaffer said his city didn’t want to get too involved in how a home looks.

“Some people have wanted us to consider an architecture review board like Mission Hills, but I think that’s over the top for Prairie Village,” the mayor said.

Christensen said Mission Hills’ architectural review board has been in place since the early 1960s. In recent years, the city also begun limiting the number of projects that could occur on a particular block when it became apparent teardowns were a growing trend.

“We had an all-time high in 2008 with 13 homes,” she said. “That really caused a lot of concerns. Certain neighborhoods were more attractive so we had several houses on the same block being done, which created difficulty for residents.”

The architectural review board has helped assure the character of neighborhoods remained intact, a safeguard that Christensen said contributed to continuing strong property values in Mission Hills.

“They’ve always felt it was important to continue a vision of homes in a garden setting,” she said.

While other communities have restrictions including height and green space, Mission Hills is alone when it comes to regulating the style of architecture.

In Fairway, the maximum height is 30 feet from the front-door threshold, and at least 55 percent of the lot must be green space. While there is no architectural review board, the planning commission must approve the type of materials being used.

“Builders say we’re very strict,” Sandy said.

The typical house being demolished in Fairway was built in the 1940s through mid-1950s, ranges in size from 2,000 to 2,500 square feet and is sold from $300,000 to $350,000. It’s being replaced with 4,500- to 6,000-square-foot homes valued at up to $750,000.

The hottest subdivision for teardowns currently is the Reinhardt Estates neighborhood in southwest Fairway, where about six teardowns are under way, said Adam Eakes, president of the 450-home Reinhardt Estates Neighborhood Association.

“It was 2005 when things really got started,” he said, as the neighborhood started to turn over from older folks selling homes to younger families.

It created some controversy in the traditional 1950s ranch-style neighborhood, Eakes said.

“People were tearing them down and building large, modern homes that some people said didn’t fit the architecture of the Eakes said. “Our home owners association now has an architectural review board.

“Our neighborhood is unique because we’re five minutes from the Plaza, 10 minutes from downtown and we have great access to Interstate 35,” he said. “Our lots are substantially larger than other Fairway neighborhoods, up to one acre in size.”

Eakes said the fact people are willing to pay $300,000 to buy and demolish a house, and then another $750,000 to replace it with a new home is a confidence boost to everyone.

“For a homeowner, it’s great from an investment standpoint,” he said. “As long as its done in a responsible way, I’m all for it.”

Coleman, the Leawood development director, said his city wants to find the balance between encouraging new investment and protecting the character of the neighborhoods that make it so desirable.

“We don’t want to inhibit people from building new homes, but we also want to protect the people there,” he said. “So homes don’t get out of proportion, there are restrictions on the size and height.”

At least 20 percent of the lot has to remain green space.

Glen Darrow of the Leawood Homes Association said his organization has a six-member architectural review commission that meets every other month. There are about 1,500 homes in the association, which covers an area of Leawood from Somerset Drive and 83rd Street to 95th Street between Mission Road and State Line Road.

“We have our ‘ranch Nazis’ who don’t want the neighborhood to change and we have guidelines we try to hold to them to,” Darrow said.

“You have people who grew up in northeast Johnson County and they move south and then realize they’ve left their church, friends and they’re farther away from facilities and work and they want to come back,” he said.

“Nine out of 10 times, they want to bring the house they had out south back in,” Darrow said.

A lot of the ranches are disappearing, he said, as new owners build homes that are 5,400 to 8,500 square feet costing $500,000 to $980,000.

While the city allows new houses to be up to 35 feet tall, the association restricts that height to 31 feet.

“While we want people to rebuild, we want them to build with masonry and stone to keep that look,” Darrow said.

Greg Hasselwander is close to occupying his new teardown home in Leawood near 91st Street and Lee Boulevard. His story is a bit different, having bought the house that was demolished in 2006 from a neighbor and then renting it for awhile.

The old house was a small three-bedroom ranch, less than 1,000 square feet, that cost him $170,000. But it was on a nice, half-acre lot with mature trees.

His new home is 4,000 square feet with four bedrooms and a three-car garage and will cost more than a half-million. Hasselwander was able to build it for less than usual because he is an architect by profession and knows a lot of subcontractors.

“I absolutely love the area and love the larger lots and big gorgeous trees,” he said. “There’s no downside. It’s close to the Plaza and a lot of good eating establishments, people walk on the sidewalks and its a friendly neighborhood.”

Hasselwander and his wife are almost empty-nesters: They have two sons who recently finished college and one is back at home for now.

But the idea of living in a Leawood teardown is popular with young families too.

Matt and Katie Bohnen have a toddler and are expecting their second child. They recently tore down a two-bedroom ranch-style house from the 1950s in the 84th Street and Meadowbrook Lane area. They replaced it with a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home.

The couple wanted to be in an older existing neighborhood and wanted to avoid a long commute to Matt’s job downtown, like his previous drive from 151st Street and Pflumm.

“It boiled down to location,” Matt Bohnen said.

Bohnen chose Mack Colt to build his home because of his previous experience working with teardowns in existing neighborhoods.

“It was important to have a builder familiar with an older neighborhood and the codes and restrictions,” he said. “It was important for us to have a home that kept the character of the neighborhood. It’s a Cape Cod with dormers and stone.

“We wanted the neighbors to be proud.”

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to kcollison@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @kckansascity

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