Housing Roundup: Case-Shiller, Suburbs, and Sprinklers

It’s S&P Case-Shiller day again. This month’s update of the house price indexes, which are for January 2010, continue the recent trend of beingTwo-story_single-family_home slightly down in absolute terms, –0.4% for the 20-city composite, but slightly up when seasonally adjusted, +0.3%.

I would characterize the numbers as being delightfully dull. Obviously, a sharp upswing in house prices would be better for homeowners, particularly the ones under water, but flat is a tremendous improvement over the death spiral that ran from the summer of ‘06 to the summer of ‘09. On a year-on-year basis the 20-city was down only –0.7% to January ‘10. With luck, that number will soon turn positive, something that has not happened since January ‘07.

With not much to report from the indexes, I thought I would take advantage of S&P C-S Day to mention two other house related things that have been bothering me lately.

The War on Suburbs

There is a small but vocal minority of Americans who not only prefer to live in urban environments but object to the manifest preference of most everybody else to live in the ‘burbs. They make noises about sprawl, about big carbon footprints, and about a vaguely defined loss of community, but when you get down to it their objections are ultimately aesthetic and cultural. They just don’t like suburbs.

An example of these folks is the Center for Neighborhood Technology which, according to its website, is “a leader in promoting more livable and sustainable urban communities.” They recently put out a press release announcing a new analysis that purports to show that once you factor in transportation costs, the suburbs aren’t as cheap as they seem.

That is an attractive story and it was dutifully picked up by newspapers and blogs. But (and I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this) the conclusions are bogus. All the CNT did was find that suburbanites spend more on transportation. They imply this is because they have to, that they need to spend a lot of money getting to and from the big city they foolishly chose not to live in.

But dig deep enough into the CNT website and you can get the paper that describes their model on which the analysis was based. Living in less dense areas and farther from the city center does explain some increase in car ownership and miles travelled, but it’s dominated by two more obvious factors, income level and household size. Households with more money and people tend to spend more on transportation. Suburbanites tend to have more money and live in larger households. So they spend more on transportation.

They probably also spend more on clothes and entertainment, but that doesn’t mean, as the CNT implies, that a person should factor in these higher “costs” when considering a move out of the city.

Sprinklers in the Home?

The latest from the nannystate is an effort to require sprinkler systems in new residential construction. (The kind that put out fires in an emergency. Most new homes have the kind for the lawn already.) Wallet Pop had a good post on this last week which carried an amazing quote from the “US Fire Association” strongly implying that smoke detectors were useless.

As the percent of homes in America that were “protected” with smoke alarms increased from zero to more than 70 percent, the number of fire deaths in homes did not significantly decrease.

My first reaction reading this was that Wallet Pop was having a little early April Fools fun with us. There can’t really be such a thing as the US Fire Association, and if there is, smoke detectors can’t really be a fraud after all, can they?

I was right about the US Fire Association not existing. But there is a US Fire Administration. It’s part of FEMA. And the quote really appears on their website on a page of Residential Sprinkler Myths and Facts. It’s from the fact column, but it ought to be in myths. I am more than a little disappointed about this, as nobody would more enjoy writing a post exploding the Great Smoke Detector Hoax. Alas, no.

Elsewhere on the same USFA site is a comprehensive report on fire in the US which shows that the number of residential fire deaths has been in secular decline for some time and makes the case that smoke detectors deserve much of the credit.

But as good an idea as smoke detectors are, sprinklers in the home are a bad one. They  are expensive (apparently averaging $8,000 per house), ugly, and would add yet another household system requiring maintenance.

About 2800 people died in residential fires in 2008. That works out to about one death per 46,000 houses. Even if we assume that sprinklers are a magic bullet that will guarantee nobody will ever die in a fire, the cost of installing enough systems to save one life a year would be $368 million.

Sure, mandating sprinklers will save lives. So would a nationwide ban on the manufacture or possession of sharp and pointy objects.

[Update: In response to an email I sent them the USFA has corrected the myths and facts page, apparently by taking the whole thing down.]


  • By Lance, March 30, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    The true costs of mandatory sprinkler systems would be even higher, once you factor in the costs incurred by those unlucky enough to have an oversensitive system that triggers a false alarm and ruins household electronics and furniture. Given that everybody on my apartment floor triggers the fire alarm while cooking, I’m not exactly filled with confidence.

  • By Jen, March 30, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    Sprinklers are activated by heat not smoke, so it would have to get significantly hot (usually 165 F) around the sprinkler for it to go off. Simply burning dinner is not going to activate the sprinkler system.

  • By jim, March 30, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    $8k per home is too high. They should not cost that much. From the USFA site: “cost of a home sprinkler system is targeted at approximately $1.00 to $1.50 per square foot in new construction” So thats more like $2,500 to $3,750 for an average size new home.

    Plus you have to factor in the savings from reduced property damage. Fires cost $7.5B a year and we insure our houses to protect them. Sprinkers can get you a 15% discount on home insurance which would be over $120 a year average. So a home sprinkler system could pay for itself in 15-25 years through lower home insurance costs alone. Thats not a great ROI, but the financial savings plus the safety factor make it a much easier sell.

  • By Lance, March 30, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    Jen– The point about my current smoke detector frustration was by illustration, not saying that this would fail in exactly the same way. A quick google shows a few sites assuring the reader that they’re foolproof, but I don’t see any hard data out there. I haven’t looked at the issue extensively, since I rent and it’s basically out of my hands.

  • By Jen, March 30, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

    Lance- as I understand it your concern is with an accidental activation of the sprinkler system – a false alarm if you will – that leads to water damage, regardless of how that would occur. (Correct me if I am wrong.)

    While I would hesitate to call any technology foolproof, sprinklers do have a low incidence of false alarms leading to activation of the heads, especially in comparison with smoke alarms. You really do need a fire, or some other way to get the area near the sprinkler head very hot.

    As for hard data, it is difficult to find. Several data sources state the odds of sprinklers accidentally activating due to a manufacturing defect of 1 in 16 million (http://www.ci.medford.or.us/Files/The%20Case%20for%20Residential%20Sprinklers.pdf see “what about flooding my house”). A study estimating that sprinkler system accidents are less likely and less severe than accidents involving the household plumbing system is also often cited. (See http://www.wsp.wa.gov/fire/docs/prevention/library/resident_sprinklers.pdf for example.) However, I can’t find any primary sources for either of these. As for damage to the sprinkler head itself by a careless neighbor, this can obviously happen. However, only that sprinkler head would go off, not all of the sprinklers in the building, so the damage would be relatively localized.

    I realize I may not have fully addressed all of your concerns, but hopefully the above helps. Having said all that, I’m not necessarily arguing for or against a residential sprinkler mandate. I just think that there are a lot of misconceptions about sprinklers that should be addressed so that the mandate issue can be discussed reasonably.

  • By Neil, March 30, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    I find that while I am aesthetically offended by suburbs, I mind the true suburbs (separate municipalities) less than the fake suburbs that draw from the same tax base as me. It’s much cheaper to service dense urban housing with buses, roads, and other great stuff. But since property taxes are based solely on property value (rather than consumption of municipal services), I find myself subsidizing an expensive lifestyle.

    While you’re right that straight up comparisons between urban and suburban transportation costs are poorly thought out, a proper study could (and should) be done that controls for income and household size, and also factors in costs pawned off on the government.

  • By zach, March 30, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    I bet you wouldn’t need to place sprinklers through the entire house. You could perhaps gauge which rooms are most likely to cause the fire, kitchen, office (electronics)…and place them there. Or perhaps just in the bedrooms so it cannot get you while you sleep (unlike Mr. Krueger whom I’m oh so excited to see next month)

    On another note, I grew up in the beautiful and gorgeous Marin County (anyone know it?). Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Mountains, hiking trails, the beaches, the extremely excellent public/private schools, low crime and of course proximity to SF. All I can say is I am so happy to have grown up there. As far as today is concerned…well paynig 1 million or more for a 3b 2ba? I don’t want to work that hard. There is more to life then the 60 hour work week peddling pharmaceuticals so you can make 300k a year like the husband of my parents new next door neigbors.

    Still +1 for suburbs…perhaps because I experienced it, I am biased, but regardless I do want my kids to grow up in a house in the “burbs”

  • By rezkiy, March 31, 2010 @ 1:28 am

    If sprinklers are so awesome, everyone who loves them so much should install them at their earliest convenience. I don’t quite get why does the pro-sprinkler crowd think that they should force everyone else into their sprinkler heaven.

  • By Lance, March 31, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    Jen– I really appreciate the links and your insights. I am constantly amazed how comment threads on blogs like this can be such fonts of knowledge. I appreciate you sharing what you know. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

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  • By WAG, May 14, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    One anecdote about accidental triggering of a sprinkler system … I live in northern Alabama. A year or so ago a friend of mine moved into a brand new apartment complex in town. The complex is equipped with fire sprinklers. During a cold snap over the winter, the piping for the sprinkler system burst. Apparently it passed through the unheated attic of the three story building. Water flowed down through all three floors. Ultimately the bottom units bore the brunt as a fair amount of the water flowed down inside the walls. While not an accidental triggering of the system, it was an incident that likely would not have happened in the absence of a sprinkler system.

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