Results Reveal a Desire for Smart Growth Communities

2011 NAR Community Preference Survey


A new survey by the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) reveals where most Americans would like to live — and it’s no big surprise. A single-family home on a large lot remains the American Dream.

But that’s just the first layer of the onion. As the 2011 Community Preference Survey peels away more layers, a host of less foreseen insights emerge — including the news that more people want to live in a neighborhood characterized by smart growth than one characterized by suburban sprawl.

That’s one of many thought-provoking findings contained in the survey of 2,071 adult Americans conducted for the NAR by Belden, Russonello and Stewart in February. Other significant highlights include:

  • While majorities of Americans rank space and privacy as their top priorities, a lengthy commute can sway them to consider smaller houses on smaller lots;
  • Seven times more people say the neighborhood where a house is located is a bigger consideration in deciding where to live than the size of the house;
  • Two-thirds of Americans see being within easy walking distance of places in their community as an important factor in deciding where to live;
  • Americans see preserving farms and open spaces as much more important than creating new developments; and
  • Improving public transportation is viewed as the best answer to traffic congestion by half the country.

All of those findings paint a picture of housing preferences that look a lot like smart growth — whether people call it that or not. Shyam Kannan, a principal with RCLCO Feal Estate Advisers and one of several experts who provided advice to NAR on the design of the survey, said the results show that when presented with options that reflect smart growth versus options that don’t, “more and more people choose smart growth.”

Perhaps the most telling question asked people to choose between living in Community A — all single-family homes on large lots, no sidewalks, little public transportation — and Community B — a variety of housing and businesses, more sidewalks, nearby public transportation. People preferred Community B — the neighborhood characterized by smart growth — over Community A — the neighborhood characterized by suburban sprawl — by a 56 to 43 percent margin.

The survey breaks down responses demographically. People between the ages of 18-29 and 60-plus chose the smart growth community more frequently than any other age group at 62 percent (18-29) and 58 percent (60-plus). These are telling statistics, as they are part of the nation’s two largest demographic waves — Generation Y and the baby boomers.

People earning $100,000-plus chose the smart growth community more frequently than any other income group (60%) followed closely by people earning $25,000 or less (59%). African Americans chose the smart growth community more than any other racial group (69%) followed by Latinos (58%) and whites (52%).

The strong preference for smart growth by Latinos is especially important, said Kannan, because immigrants are driving the country’s population growth and Latinos — many of whom are immigrants — are the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic population.

While 65 percent of single people chose the smart growth community, 52 percent of married people chose the sprawl community. Recent homebuyers also chose the sprawl community more often (54%), but prospective homebuyers favored the smart growth community (57%). People from the northeast chose the smart growth option more than any other region in the country (63%) followed by people from the Midwest (57%).

Walking to restaurants, businesses, schools and other amenities was the most appealing feature of the smart growth community to 60 percent of all those who preferred that choice. It also was the most appealing feature of the smart growth community to 40 percent of those who preferred the suburban sprawl choice.

That wasn’t the only survey question that revealed Americans are eager to stretch their legs. Sidewalks and places to take walks ranked third among factors considered very important or at least somewhat important in deciding where to live. Privacy from neighbors (45 percent very important/87 percent at least somewhat important) was first, followed by living within a 30-minute commute to work (36 percent/78 percent) and having sidewalks/places to walk (31 percent/77 percent).

Another sign that walkability is important came when people were asked to choose between a community with a mix of housing/businesses within an easy walk and a community with houses only, where residents have to drive to businesses. People preferred the walkable community by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin. “You have so many amenities, restaurants, shops, friends nearby, culture,” said a survey respondent.

People were especially keen on walking to a grocery store (35 percent very important/40 percent somewhat important), pharmacy (24 percent/41 percent), hospital (25 percent/36 percent) and restaurants (18 percent/42 percent).

When asked to choose from a list of community needs, 46 percent of respondents cited having more shops or restaurants within an easy walk of home. That ranked it third behind providing better public transportation (51%) and offering more housing for people with low incomes (47%).

Besides being the leading community need, better public transportation also was the preferred answer to reducing traffic congestion. An even 50 percent of the public favored that option compared to 30 percent who favored developing communities that require less driving and 18 percent who favored building new roads.

Nothing, however, eclipses the desire for a single-family detached home. That’s where 80 percent of people said they preferred to live — and where 70 percent already reside — when asked to choose between various housing types.

Most (59%) said they would be willing to accept a longer commute and forgo walking to shops and restaurants to live in a single-family home rather than an apartment or a townhome. Still, that leaves a sizable minority — 38 percent — who’d prefer an apartment or townhouse if it shortened their commute and enabled them to walk to shops and restaurants.

That’s a significant number considering 80 percent of the country would otherwise prefer to live in a single-family home. Kannan believes it’s another indication that “the more information we give people about what smart growth looks like, the more likely they are to choose it.”

It’s also noteworthy that despite ranking privacy as the most important factor in deciding where to live, 59 percent of the public said they’d choose a smaller house on a smaller lot if their commutes were 20 minutes or less. “Quality of life is convenience for me,” said a survey respondent. “Being able to walk to public transportation means I spend less time commuting. We could have a bigger house somewhere else, but it wouldn’t be worth it for me.”

On the other hand, walkability doesn’t transcend the desire for space even if it means living in a sprawl-oriented community. Most people (61%) said they’d be willing to drive to schools, stores and restaurants in order to live in a house on a large lot rather than live in a house on a small lot that enabled them to walk to those destinations. “It doesn’t even have to be a larger house. I just want space between my neighbors and me,” said a survey respondent.

Nevertheless, a strong anti-sprawl sentiment emerged when people were asked to prioritize a list of housing and community issues facing their state governments. Preserving farms and open spaces was the number one issue with 53 percent of the people saying it was a high or extremely high priority. Creating new developments was dead last at 24 percent.

Kannan believes one of the most significant findings for real estate developers involves the tradeoff between size of house and the quality of the neighborhood. Builders typically emphasize size and finishings much more than neighborhood when developing and marketing housing, he said, yet 88 percent of survey respondents said neighborhood mattered more than size of house in deciding where to live. And — based on their answers to numerous other questions — the kind of neighborhood they prefer includes a healthy dose of smart growth.

That puts real estate developers at the same crossroads as U.S. auto companies a few decades ago when they were painfully slow to respond to changing consumer demand for smaller and more fuel- efficient cars, said Kannan. “I don’t know if builders realize that this is their 1970s/1980s oil shortage ... and they can’t ignore the opportunity to change their business model,” he said.

To view the survey in its entirety, please visit

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About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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