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Patio homes provide upscale downsizing But some town officials cite unfair tax breaks, contribution to sprawl

Amherst residents Theresa and Frank Papa had the money to live anywhere.

For nearly 30 years, they resided in a spacious 7,000-square-foot home in Waterford Park and raised five children.

But after their kids grew up, they wanted a break.

"The size of the house was too much to handle," Theresa Papa said.

The couple traded their house for a smaller "patio home" -- a ranch-style residence that pairs homeownership with a low-maintenance lifestyle.

Patio home developments, which take care of all yard, road and driveway maintenance, represent the hottest suburban housing trend in Western New York. At a time when home sales are tanking nationwide, these homes remain in great demand, especially in Western New York, where senior citizens make up a higher-than-average percentage of the population.

Some of the region's major developers said sales of patio homes now account for half or more of all the homes they build. More than 500 units are already on the drawing boards for the next few years.

Not all town officials are happy about this: They accuse patio home developments of offering unfair tax breaks and contributing to suburban sprawl.

Bare senior citizen dwellings these are not. Many patio homes contain upscale finishes, walk-in closets and cathedral ceilings. A few have sold for as much as $700,000.

"You'll see your first million-dollar [patio] homes in Buffalo within the year," said Jane Gurbacki, a patio home sales representative for the region's largest home builder, Marrano/Marc Equity.

>Upper $100,000s and more

Patio homes appeal to a broad cut of "active, older adults" who still want the garage, porch, driveway and yard, but aren't interested in all the exterior upkeep. While these buyers own the house and the land on which it directly sits, most of the surrounding yard and street is considered "common area" cared for by a homeowners association.

"I just had a call two minutes ago," said Rick Tesmer, co-owner of Tesmer Builders, which has four patio home developments in Amherst. "He had a 9,800-square-foot house in Spaulding Lake, and he wants to downsize."

John Manns, Marrano's vice president of sales and marketing, said many buyers are coming from bigger homes and can pay cash for their patio homes.

These developments often carry condominium status, meaning that homeowners pay only a fraction of what they would normally pay in property taxes for a traditional single-family home. That savings, however, often gets redirected to hefty homeowner association fees.

The developments cater to many income levels, but they don't come cheap. Even the least expensive units tend to run in the upper $100,000s.

Salvatore and Maureen Morreale are South Buffalo retirees in their 60s who recently spent $268,000 for a 2,000-square-foot patio home in Elma.

"We decided we'd like to do a little more traveling," Maureen Morreale said. "We'd like to visit our children."

A defining feature of patio homes is a first-floor master bedroom. The Morreales, like many, also opted for a second-floor loft/bedroom. Their development, Springbrook Shores, will eventually include a two-mile walking trail with fitness stations and stocked ponds.

Alan Randaccio, owner of Randaccio Builders, said patio homes evolved from town homes. His company has been offering such lower-maintenance housing in Western New York since the 1970s.

"We went from townhouses that were originally six units to a building," he said. ". . . We found that people like the end units the best, so we started doing fewer units, four units, with a unit on each corner. That evolved into what people really wanted, which was their own home on their own lot."

>Wave of the future

These appeal to people such as the Papas, snowbirds with a winter place in Florida. The couple spent $450,000 for their 2,500-square-foot home in the Bromptons four years ago. It's tiny compared with their former 7,000-square-foot dwelling.

"You don't need all that space," said Frank Papa, active at 80 and chairman of National Fire Adjustment Co.

Their three-bedroom house makes it easy for children and grandchildren to visit, and it's nestled in a tightknit community.

The Papas know most of their neighbors, share cocktail and dinner parties, and routinely help out when a neighbor needs a hand or gets sick. That kinship blossoms, they said, because they all have similar stage-of-life interests and concerns, and more leisure time.

Developers see patio homes as the wave of the future. They have become so popular that the term patio home is being stretched, perhaps wrongly, to include duplexes and town homes that share a wall.

Manns said his company was surprised last year to sell slightly more patio homes than traditional single-family homes. Marrano already has completed eight patio home developments, and is selling or planning seven more.

Tesmer and Randaccio are also working on future developments.

Grant and Mary McLennan bought a West Seneca patio home in 2003 when they married and took stock of their lives. Both spouses work and were previously divorced.

"We both had no children, and we both realized we weren't going to have any, so that's when we started looking at the patio homes," said Grant McLennan, 47.

Some suburban towns, especially those trying to preserve rural character in outer-ring suburbs, have aggressively worked to keep out patio homes. Some are particularly concerned about the density of these developments since patio homes are typically clustered close together on small lots.

In addition, towns receive considerably less property tax revenue from these developments than from regular single-family homes because of their condominium status. Condos are often assessed at half of their fair market value, said Amherst Assessor Harry E. Williams. That is unfair to both the town and to other homeowning taxpayers, Williams said.

"If you live in a house that's worth $500,000, and I live in a condominium that's worth $500,000, but I pay half the taxes, that's unfair," he said. [Patio homes] look like a single-family home. . . . They should be assessed as a single-family home."

>Tax setup called 'a con'

Victor Martucci, Marrano's vice president of land development, said patio home residents should not have to pay the same property tax rate when they use fewer services.

They usually don't have children in school, and their water and sewer lines are private, as are the roads, he said. These residents also aren't generating much traffic during peak hours because many are no longer working.

Williams called the patio homes' tax setup "a con." Patio home residents still wear down public roadways and contribute to the town's sewer and water loads, he said. Those residents are also still free to use the town's recreational services.

"It puts a burden on the town that has to be paid for by every other taxpayer," he said.

Martucci and other developers said towns should be grateful that patio homes keep older residents in town who would otherwise leave.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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