Boom Nation: Meet Me in St. Louis

Across the country, there's a fight for your mortgage dollar. In one corner, we have the suburban Goliaths. In the other, the smaller, older Davids of inner-city America.

Squaring off in this fight are my mother, Barbara Mabrey, and me. She likes the soaring newness of a "'McMansion." I like the "if walls could talk" history of a turn-of-the-century home.

To compare the value of old vs. new, my mother and I set out on a home tour in our hometown of St. Louis.

My mother lives in the suburbs, but I am a lover of the city.

I asked John Eilerman, CEO of Homebuilders McBride and Sons, to make his pitch at a model home we visited -- starting price $325,000 -- in a suburb north of the city.

"This is about 4,000 square feet," said Eilerman, as we walked around. "Isn't this spectacular?"

My mother loved it.

I asked Eilerman what people usually insisted on having in a new home.

"The two major rooms are the kitchen and the master bath," he said. "Those are the two rooms that you have to have all the newest and greatest features … new appliances, new cabinets in the kitchen. In the bathroom, it's the new master tubs and the spacious master bath."

He also agreed that people liked double-height entry halls.

Traditional master bedrooms have now transformed into ground-floor master suites. I asked Eilerman who needed such spacious bathrooms.

"This is what our customers want," he said.

I glanced at my mother, who was smiling. "I like it," she said.

The bathroom also boasted a fireplace, a separate shower, and a raised Jacuzzi with steps made of "cultured marble."

"What is 'cultured marble?'" I asked Eilerman.

"It is a man-made product," he explained, " that gives you a lot of flexibility in the colors. But it is a man-made product."

"Are these homes going to last?" I asked him. "I hear a lot of people telling me that new homes are not built to last. They have built-in obsolescence."

Eilerman said the homes would last. He mentioned that the siding was designed to last 40 years, and that the shingles had a 50-year guarantee.

"A lot of the materials are actually better today than they were before," he said. "The windows are a lot more efficient than they were before."

As Eilerman explained it, this was one of the benefits of buying a new home: You're not going to face all that maintenance for many, many years.

I wasn't convinced. St. Louis has some of the most amazing architecture of any U.S. city -- stately, solid, mostly brick homes -- and what's really heartening is how many of them are still standing. They're barely standing in some cases, but still there and ready to be rehabbed.

Susie Gudermuth, a staunch urban guerrilla who staked her claim in the city 25 years ago, has been buying and renovating houses throughout her neighborhood to keep it -- and them -- from deteriorating.

After years of practically having to give these houses away, she said their values were soaring. Gudermuth has one she renovated on the market for $525,000 -- less, she says, than what she paid to rehab it.

"We cannot compete with the 4,000-square-foot house for $300,000," she said.

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