Why do cookie-cutter neighborhoods exist?

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Most of us don't run the risk of mistaking our neighbor's home for our own. We do a lot of things to set our houses apart from each other: painting the exterior a shade of eggplant, or planting a gigantic hydrangea in front. But beyond our own touches, it's usually pretty easy to distinguish one house on your block from another because, quite simply, they're different houses. But is that always the case?

If you live in the United States -- or have seen a television show set in suburbia -- you know what cookie-cutter neighborhoods are. Identical houses equally spaced apart, with matching lawns, backyards and even landscaping, these developments are a sea of seemingly endless, indistinguishable homes.

And while a lot of people question the appeal of a home that you could easily confuse for your neighbors', there is a method behind the cookie-cutter madness. To get to the bottom of it, we'll trace the history of tract housing (the more real estate-friendly term for cookie-cutter neighborhoods).

It began with the post-World War II boom; suddenly, there were millions of families who now had stable employment and were ready to own their own piece of the American Dream. Unfortunately, the housing market didn't necessarily get the memo: The blue-collar income of many families simply didn't match the cost of preexisting housing. Consider the fact that a whopping 5 million residences were needed to house people by the end of 1945, due to former GIs returning home [source: Materrese].

What the United States needed was space for middle class families -- lots of it, and fast. And Levitt and Sons, a real estate investment and development company on Long Island, had a 6,000-acre land tract on an abandoned potato field that fit the bill. William Levitt (of the "Sons" part of the company) was also returning from the war and realized that small lots on big tracts could make excellent neighborhoods. In May 1947, Levitt and Sons announced that 2,000 affordable rentals would be built on their land.

Two days later, 1,000 houses were already rented. When 1948 rolled around, the Levitts were building 30 houses a day. And demand was still growing; by 1949, the Levitts realized they could start selling homes that were a bit larger but still manufactured identically and affordable. In 1951, almost 17,500 homes were built in (or very near) what came to be known as Levittown. Also known as the first cookie-cutter neighborhood.

Discover how the Levitts (and those who came after them) created these gingerbread houses from scratch on the next page.

Characteristics and Style of Cookie-cutter Houses

Yum, cookies.
Yum, cookies.

So now that we know how the first tract housing exploded (or multiplied, more accurately), let's find out how exactly those "little boxes on the hillside" are constructed so perfectly identically -- and why.

The answer is as American as tract housing itself: buy in bulk! And it's true; creating 10 identical houses is a lot cheaper than creating 10 distinctive houses. There's a predictable amount of materials that can be bought in large quantities, which means less waste and bigger discounts. Discounts that can, ostensibly, be passed down to a homeowner who can pay less for a home.

Another feature of tract housing was established early on. The Levitts saw the Ford assembly line model, with its streamlined manufacturing system and repetitive construction, and figured out that it could work for them. Each construction worker was given one specific task and moved from house to house completing it. The beauty of the model was that the Levitts (and subsequent tract housing developers) could avoid labor unions by hiring general workers and training them specifically. It also guarded against the high turnover of construction work, as no person had too much "institutional knowledge" and was more valuable than the next [source: Hales].

There's another reason those cookie-cutter homes are so desirable to developers and builders. Just like Levitt did in the '40s and '50s, many of the firms either own or form partnerships with certain supply companies. So, all the windows come from one place, all the doors from another and so on. That's fairly predictable; what Levitt did, however, was actually buy those subsidiary companies. By owning, for instance, the lumber company and nail company that they used, he avoided messy things like strikes (and, again, unions) [source: Materrese].

While this is a pretty clever business move (that some would call downright shady), it also contributed to the utter uniformity of the houses. There was literally not a nail's difference in each Levittown home.

If there's a reason that cookie-cutter homes and neighborhoods exist today, it's that Levitt and Sons' practices worked. The houses are made quickly, cheaply and abundantly. And while it was once delegated to the suburbs, it's now used to make affordable inner city housing for low-income and mixed income homes [source: Seattle Housing Authority].

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  • Cray, Dan. "15 Milestones That Changed Housing." This Old House. 2012. (April 18, 2012) http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,217080,00.html
  • Hales, Peter Bacon. "Building Levittown: A Rudimentary Primer." University of Illinois at Chicago. (April 18, 2012) http://tigger.uic.edu/~pbhales/Levittown/
  • Kopec, Dave. "Attack of the Cookie-Cutter Homes." Realty Times. May 28, 2003. (April 18, 2012) http://realtytimes.com/rtpages/20030528_cookiecutter.htm
  • Matarrese, Lynn. "Levittown Historical Society's History of Levittown, New York." Levittown Historical Society. (April 18, 2012) http://www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org/history.htm
  • Pendola, Rocco. "About Suburban Sprawl." San Francisco Gate. 2011. (April 18, 2012) http://homeguides.sfgate.com/suburban-sprawl-2578.html
  • Seattle Housing Authority. "Rainier Vista." 2012. (April 18, 2012) http://www.seattlehousing.org/redevelopment/rainier-vista/