Easy Living
Low Maintenance Housing

After decades of lawn care, shoveling snow and all the work involved with taking care of a larger property, it is no wonder that many people are flocking to low maintenance housing. In a traditional low maintenance housing development, homeowners are members of a homeowner association (HOA), which, for a membership fee, takes on the burden of year-round exterior maintenance.

In part because of the aging population in Western Pennsylvania (one in five residents of Allegheny County is age 65 or over), low maintenance housing construction has seen a surge in recent years. Many empty nesters or active retirees are unwilling to sacrifice the joys of home ownership but are eager to relinquish the not-so-enjoyable parts of home ownership to someone else. That is where low maintenance housing fits the bill, providing someone with a fixed asset but with the benefits of apartment living. The vast majority of low maintenance housing in our area are one-level patio homes, and there are several builders who specialize in this type of construction.

Defining Low Maintenance

There is no one official definition of what constitutes a low maintenance living situation, but most builders would agree that it is a lifestyle choice. Shaun Seydor, president of the North Hills-based Pitell Homes, said, “For us, it’s peace of mind for the customer.” At Pitell, Seydor explained that the HOA covers things like roof and siding repair, snow removal, and grass cutting.

Similarly, Kelly Dunn, VP of Sales and Marketing for Weaver Homes, based in Mars, said, “I would define it as easy living. You are not responsible for the chores or the upkeep of some parts of home ownership. You’re not responsible to cut the grass or mulch flower beds or shovel snow—those are taken off your plate, giving you back your time and physical freedom,” she said.

Jason Corna, Vice President/Residential Division of Kacin Companies and Edgewater Realty, a Murrysville-based business, added, “I would say low maintenance homes are typically one floor. They incorporate some form of universal design, which allows for wider doorways and hallways, open floor plan concepts, and minimizing or eliminating the need to use stairs. Also, low maintenance homes typically involve a community with an HOA that basically takes care of all of their yards and snow removal.”

Paul Scarmazzi, owner of Scarmazzi Homes, a custom builder of luxury patio homes based in Canonsburg, said of low maintenance living, “I think it’s something where people can lock and leave, and there are different variations of that. You can go away in the winter and not worry about the house,” he said. And if your walk is being shoveled regularly, no one can tell if the house is occupied or not, an added safety measure.

Size often plays a role in low maintenance housing. Though many people shy away from the word ‘downsizing,’ preferring the word ‘rightsizing,’ most patio homes are going to have less of a footprint. Less space equals less maintenance overall, which is consistent with the lifestyle. Scarmazzi said that his company’s ‘sweet spot’ is about 1,900 square feet.

But not everyone prefers less square footage but more functional use of space. As Corna explained, “You can go from 1,800 square feet to 5,000 square feet. A lot of times, our buyers are not looking to downsize the living space, just to ‘right-size’ it and make it more usable for them.”

There is also a minor difference between patio homes and carriage homes. “Patio homes are truly on a slab: no basement, one floor. Carriage homes can be an interchangeable term, but ours have full walk-out basements,” explained Corna.

Low Maintenance Developments

Due to scarcity of land, many Western Pennsylvania low maintenance custom home builders also develop whole communities.

Scarmazzi Homes has four communities in which they are actively building, such as Belmont Park in Chartiers Township, Highland Village in Union Township, and the Villas of South Park. Primarily, these are single family detached homes. The company will be developing more in the next six months and are in the process of building a community with attached quad condos.

Half of Pitell’s business is low maintenance patio home developments. Pitell builds patio homes in quads, with two adjoining units on each side that share a common driveway. Pitell’s flexible patio home layouts, of which there can be a number of configurations, generally feature a two-bedroom, two-bath open concept kitchen and dining area, with vaulted ceilings, a private master bath suite and first floor laundry. “We give customers an optional second floor and third bathroom. The flex space can be unfinished storage, or some use it as a study or an exercise room.” He said that over 80% of customers choose to add on that second floor.

Some of Pitell’s low maintenance communities include Shelton Place at Leslie Farms outside Evans City, of which they’ve built 64 quad units. The company also sold out 20 quad units called The Plantation in Saxonburg. Forthcoming for Pitell is a new 112-unit quad patio home community called Liberty Pointe in Jefferson Township. This new community will have nine options for different elevations of the home and a variety of choices from full siding to partial stone to partial or full brick, and different window configurations. “This will create a much more interesting street scape in the new community,” said Seydor.

Kacin Companies and Edgewater Realty develop their own communities and build within these communities. Previous developments include Edgewater in Oakmont, Summerset at Frick Park in Squirrel Hill; and South Meadow at Lindwood in Greensburg. Newer communities are Hillstone Village located in Murrysville; and North Meadow located in Washington Township. Both communities also include single family homes.

Weaver Homes has been in the homebuilding business since the mid-80s and a decade or so later, became a franchise partner with Epcon Communities out of Columbus, Ohio, focusing on the active adult buyer. Weaver develops its own neighborhoods, some of which are patio homes called quads, but they also offer single family style homes. “We’re just getting ready to introduced paired villas, which are a duplex townhome style that has a second floor but no basement. All of these contain a primary bed and bath on the second floor for true one-level living,” said Dunn. Unlike traditional patio homes that feature one-level living, the paired villas will have a second floor with a second bedroom and loft on the second floor, and some will have basements.

Some of Weaver’s low maintenance communities include Heritage Crossings in Sarver; the Villas at Forest Oaks in Butler; and the Courtyards at Hidden Falls in Fox Chapel. In the works is Woodland Reserve in Jackson Township and Lakeside Village in Baden. Square footage for all of these homes varies in size but average around 1,800 square feet, whereas single family homes range from 1,700-3,000 square feet.

Low Maintenance Products

Low maintenance construction is different from low maintenance housing, as most builders do incorporate low maintenance materials. Today’s building codes mean that all new homes are built with energy efficiency in mind, but efficiency as well as low-maintenance products are part and parcel of low maintenance living as well. Scarmazzi said that there has been an evolution of products and components that go into home building that continue to be more durable, such as luxury vinyl plank flooring. Still, these homes can be highly customized.

Corna said that his company uses low maintenance exterior products including, Hardie siding or vinyl siding, composite decking, energy efficient windows, and durable long-lasting roofing materials. “These are things that in general, do not need to be replaced for a long period of time,” he said.

Seydor added that Pitell Homes always try to build their homes as efficiently as possible, such as a standard Google Nest Thermostat that can be controlled remotely. “We use the latest technology on water fixtures, electric fixtures, etc. That is why we have the zero entry wider partitions between rooms, which lends themselves to this demographic,” he said.

At Weaver, Dunn said that they use Low-E (Low-emissivity) glass windows to help keep out the cold and retain heat, ideal for homes in colder climates. “We use only manufacturers with high warranties on their product. A lot of the warranties with new construction homes will add to that easy living lifestyle,” said Dunn.

Also, because many people plan to age in place, Weaver Homes have options for safety grab bars as well as wider doorways to make things more accessible in the event a homeowner develops mobility issues.

It’s a Lifestyle

Many empty nesters or retirees want to free themselves from the shackles of the worst parts of home ownership: maintenance and outdoor chores. Those who are snow birds also want the freedom and peace of mind to vacate their homes for the winter and know that their home will be cared for in their absence. “The lion’s share of the demographic are folks who are downsizing. Folks who will really benefit from low maintenance living are those who do not have large families in the household,” said Seydor.

Corna added that many of these snowbirds appreciate the smart home features, which allows them to monitor their home while they are away.

But being retired is not equivalent to inactivity or being antisocial. Not having to rake leaves frees up the homeowner to travel or enjoy other activities. Most of the patio home communities also offer amenities to support an active lifestyle or provide socialization opportunities for residents as well as a sense of community.

For example, Pitell’s upcoming Liberty Pointe Development will have a paved walking trail as well as a clubhouse. The Plantation at Saxonburg has a clubhouse and a pool.

Hillstone Village features a bocci court and a pickleball court, two activities popular with this demographic of buyer. “Anything that promotes togetherness seems to be great for our communities,” said Corna.

Dunn said that in addition to pickleball, which is sweeping both the nation and low maintenance housing developments, one of Weaver’s communities has a lake upon which residents can kayak. “The healthy outdoor living lifestyle is something we are focusing on just as much as the design of the floor plan of the home,” she said, adding that outdoor living space is becoming very important to people.

Beth Anne Brogan built a patio home at Heritage Crossings in Sarver, a Weaver community. “My prior home was just too big for me. I decided I no longer wanted the maintenance of a yard and a big house, so this place really turned out to become one of my best decisions. I love my house, and I have found peace here,” she said. Her home is a two-bedroom, one-level home with a sunroom, laundry room and a storage room.

Brogan also enjoys the community amenities, from ‘Thirsty Thursdays’ to Monday night dice games to the pool table in the club house.

Older people are not the only demographic taking advantage of this type of lifestyle. “Single people are struggling with affordability and are starting to enter this space,” said Scarmazzi.

Dunn agreed, adding that the target market has evolved over the years and not limited to just empty nesters but young professionals who want the benefit of an easier lifestyle.

Low Maintenance Trends

As mentioned, many builders are turning toward low maintenance home building because of the inherently older population that comprises Allegheny County, leading to an increased demand, particularly as Baby Boomers are entering their retirement years. Patio homes are the most common low maintenance product; despite the name, they do not necessarily include a patio. Rather, they are usually single level homes that are built on a flat slab, eliminating the need for a basement.

However, said Seydor, “It’s a harder project to build from a land development perspective; you need a big flat area to do it. With the big rolling hills of Pittsburgh, with the land remaining, land suitability is a big hurdle to the availability of patio homes. Finding available land is one of the reasons we self-develop,” he said.

Dunn agreed that it is difficult to build this type of home in our area. “You will find some builders not touch it because it is difficult. We do and love specializing in it because we see the demand for it in the area. It’s really a sense of purpose for us to create homes that are safe, comfortable, and have a sense of community and neighborhood,” said Dunn. It’s particularly difficult for buyers to find these homes for resale, as buyers who contract to build these houses view them as lifetime homes.

“I think low maintenance housing and construction is very popular right now, and I foresee it continuing to be that way in the future as people continue to get busier. It doesn’t just have to be for empty nesters and retirees,” said Corna.

Scarmazzi said that there is not a lot of existing home inventory in the market, nor does he see much coming on the market. “I think it will be a relatively balanced to tight marketplace over the next three to five years.”

“This is not transitional housing,” agreed Dunn. “People are staying in these homes for the reminder of their lives because it is easy living. People aren’t moving out of these like they would a traditional starter home type of scenario. You’ll see more communities across the country offering these amenities.”  NH