Before moving to Arizona, I remember combing through Phoenix MLS listings online from my kitchen table in Indiana. I marveled at the exotic Southwest exteriors, stucco finishes and clay tile roofs. Few of those type of homes exist in the Midwest.
When I settled into an Arizona home, I started to understand the stark regional differences in home construction styles, amenities and building materials between the Phoenix Valley and the rest of the country.
If you are planning to move to greater Phoenix, you too will notice these architectural anomalies. Most of the differences are due to adaptations for the sun and heat. Others are driven by geography and soil.
Here is my list of notable Phoenix architectural variations:
- Post-Tension Slabs – Troublesome clay-rich soil in some areas of the Phoenix metro acts like a toy sponge capsule animal. It expands when wet. Traditional concrete foundations can crack under the heaving. By contrast, post-tension slabs are interlaced with high-tension cables to bind the foundation. Its a great solution to the soil issue. However, you should never plan on drilling or cutting a post-tension slab.
- Swimming Pools – Approximately 37% of the single-family homes in Phoenix have an in-ground pool. In northern climates, pools are rare and create a resale liability. Here, pools will enhance your bottom line as a seller. Snowbird residents who head north in the summer don’t require them as much. However, locals who stick around to endure the July heat insist on owning one. Plus, it makes them royalty among their friends May through September.
- Block Walls – If you were building middle-class homes in mid-century Phoenix like John F. Long and Ralph Staggs, chances are you were framing your walls with concrete block. It’s inexpensive, structurally load-bearing, has great insulative properties and walls can be assembled rapidly. These homes will be standing for many more decades. The decorative cousin of concrete block is slump block which is ubiquitous on Valley homes of the era.
- Electrical Panels – You won’t find the main electrical panel in the garage or laundry room in most single-family homes around Phoenix. Breaker panels are commonly located on a side exterior wall of the home near the curb. The logic is that fire rescue crews can turn off breakers and safely disconnect electricity before entering the home to put out a blaze.
- Gutters – We don’t need no stinking gutters. Gutters are conspicuously absent on most homes in the Valley of the Sun. Yes, you will see them on occasion, but in many cases, gutters are elective. Many home builders don’t install them. The Phoenix metro receives an average of only 7 inches each year of rain. Precipitation comes mostly in the monsoon season (June through September) during a few select torrential downpours.
- Basements – Finding a house with a basement in Phoenix will be tough. Well, partially impossible. Your odds might be better finding the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. Statistically, only about 3% of the housing stock in the Phoenix metro has a basement. There are several reasons for this including hard caliche rock strata in the soil and the high cost of excavation. Suffice it to say that you should probably move a basement from the “need” to the “nice to have” column on your home search criteria.
- Fireplaces – Don’t expect to find a wood-burning fireplace inside a Maricopa County home that was built after 1998. Seriously. They don’t exist. Here’s why. You will have options with gas, electric and LP fireplaces though. Outdoor patio fireplaces and chimineas are good to go.
- Vinyl Siding – This is a cost-effective and reasonably durable exterior cladding solution for the U.S. Midwest and South. However, the intensity of the Arizona sun will literally warp it. Vinyl siding melts off of homes in Phoenix like a pat of butter sliding off a pancake griddle. I can count the number of vinyl-sided homes that I have seen in Phoenix on one hand. Each one was in rough shape.
- Water Main – When your pipes spring a leak in Phoenix, you’ll likely head outdoors to turn off the main water valve. Typically, the shut-off valve is located in a straight line between the city’s water meter and the house. Homeowners in colder climates head to the basement or an interior closet for this task due to freezing temps that would burst an outdoor water pipe.
- Decks – It is a fool’s errand to build a wooden deck in Phoenix. The sun would eat it up and spit it out in a few short years. Instead, concrete pool decks, sidewalks and patios are coated with products like Kool Deck. It’s a concrete surface coating that is warm, not blistering, to bare feet in the summer sun.
- Yard Walls – Concrete masonry yard walls are omnipresent. You will find them in both starter home communities and upscale developments. Block walls can be built for about $37 per linear foot and will last a lifetime. Wood fences deteriorate in the sun. As poet Robert Frost asserted, good fences make good neighbors.
- Stucco – This exterior wall cladding is resilient in the desert heat as long as you keep it painted every 5-7 years.
- Solar Panels – Arizona seems like the logical frontrunner among states for the solar energy crown. However, we are actually 3rd in terms of cumulative electric capacity installed behind California and North Carolina. If you are new to solar panels and plan to buy an Arizona home with a solar array, educate yourself on the implications of leasing versus owning the system.
- Roofing – Those gorgeous clay and concrete tiles also serve a practical purpose. The curved underbelly of the tile allows air to flow underneath and channel hot air away from the home. Tile roofs can last 75 years or more in the hot sun, which makes them the perfect roofing material for Arizona. Just don’t buy a home on a golf course that has clay tiles. You will be replacing cracked tiles after every winter golf season (and perpetually retrieving golf balls from the bottom of your pool).
- Evaporative Coolers – This the predecessor of the modern central air conditioning system. “Evap coolers” are visible here in the Valley on homes built from 1940-1980. Locals call them “swamp coolers” and a local Phoenix HVAC company was renowned nationally for improving their design and efficiency. These boxy roof-top units draw hot desert air across a wet filter and push it down inside the home. The water cools the hot air and reduces temperatures inside the home from sweltering to mildly tolerable.
- Age of Structure – Phoenix has a relatively young housing stock compared to other major cities in the U.S. That’s because our residential building boom didn’t get going until the advent of affordable central air conditioning in the 1960s. Since very little of the housing stock dates from the early 20th century, homes here are reasonably energy efficient.
Rome has not seen a modern building in more than half a century. It is a city frozen in time. – Richard Meier, American architect