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Home Builders Turn to Cheaper, Unique Building Materials


The great American dream of building and owning a home is stronger today than ever before. And the vision of the ideal home should be as widely varied as the dreamers themselves.

During my many years of writing about real estate, what has fascinated me most is the intense desire of most families to own a home and the willingness to make major sacrifices to attain that goal. It's also intriguing to learn how some people reach far beyond conventional methods and materials to create distinctive residences.

For example, some innovative persons are creating homes from shipping containers. Yes, some of those big strong-gauge steel containers used primarily for shipping products worldwide via ships, rail, trucks and cargo planes are finally ending their travels and finding a home, literally. They are being converted into creative and low-cost homes.

With the increasing cost of conventional building materials, the recycling of shipping containers looks very appealing. There are many of them, and they can be readily customized to meet the builder's needs — use for very small homes, or several can be put together as modular elements in larger homes.

Straw bale is another material taking part in the construction of unique homes. It's a surprisingly sturdy home-building material and serves as a great insulator. It also rates high in noise reduction, plus it saves on utility costs.

One builder reported his construction cost was only about $10 per square-foot. He pointed out that using straw bales as a home building material was better than burning straw as agriculture waste, which creates more air pollutants.

Some people want to go more out on a limb in creating a "different" type of residence. They develop a tree house for themselves — sometimes taking the form of a small but full residence; however, more often it's a fun, get-away place for the kids or used as a guest residence. There are now a growing number of firms that specialize in designing and building tree houses.

Then there are some homeowners who want to create an even more unique home, such as a lady in Malibu, Calif., who is using the wing of a Boeing 747 jet aircraft for the roof of her new hillside residence. The 2,500-square-foot wing that has traveled many thousands of miles has found a permanent home.

The wing now floats on simple steel-brace frames, attached to mounting points on the wing where engines were previously mounted. The huge wing was delivered to the site via helicopter.

If you know of an unusual home or other property that would be interesting to a national readership, please let me know about it.

My e-mail is

Like an old friend who returns home after being away for many years, the highly respected trade name of Better Homes and Gardens has returned as a major real estate franchise organization.

On July 23, the new international franchise of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC was officially launched. It's tied to one of the nation's strongest and most firmly established "home related" magazine brand names, Better Homes and Gardens. In addition to the magazine that has provided a guide for millions of homeowners since 1924, the name identified a successful franchise organization for real estate brokers from 1977 to 1998 — Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Service.

The franchiser, originally owned by the Meredith Corp. (founder-owner of the magazine), was sold to GMAC in 1998; the name was subsequently dropped by franchisee brokerage firms.

However, that familiar name will soon be revived on selected Realtor's signs throughout the United States and 24 foreign countries. Realogy Corp., a leading provider of real estate sales and relocation services, owns the new franchise. They have entered into a 50-year agreement to license the Better Homes and Gardens name from the Meredith Corp., and have a renewal option for another 50 years.

Realogy Corp. owns other leading real estate organizations such as Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Coldwell Banker Commercial, The Corcoran Group, ERA, Sotheby's International Realty and others.

"The Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brand will enable brokers and sales associates to deliver a caliber of service to their customers expected under the Better Homes and Gardens name," said Sherry A. Chris, president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC.

"Brokers will recognize that franchising with us is a viable investment in their future. Similarly, consumers will have an immediate connection with a brand they know and trust."

The franchise has launched their website — — giving visitors access to information on 300,000 current property listings nationwide.

Q. Are more Americans buying homes in Mexico?

A. Apparently so. A recently completed study shows an increasing number of American citizens purchasing a residence and living in Mexico. The number has exceeded a million, with the highest percentage being retirees, according to a report from the State Department.

The primary motivation to move to Mexico is the lower cost of living, compared to the United States. Most of those relocating in Mexico are settling in Puerto Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta, Manzanillo and other resort-type communities where there are many other Americans.

Owning a property in Mexico has become easier in recent years. Changes in Mexican law allow foreigners to own property if they go through a Mexican trust bank, according to officials at Latin American Home Investments Inc.

To find out more about Jim Woodard and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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