The primary feature of suburbs is the single-family home. It is where people live and spend their family time in a society where people have become increasingly private. It represents ownership of a piece of land and a dwelling. It is a status symbol to friends, neighbors, and the broader society. It is an investment (though single-family homes were not always viewed this way). Arguably, the rest of suburbia is geographically laid out around single-family homes with networks of roads, stores, and businesses all ordered around residential areas and subdivisions. The federal government even subsidizes single-family homes.
At its base, the single-family home may be about a place away from the rest of the world. If Americans are individualistic, they need a place to which they can retreat. Suburbanites protect their homes, land, and property values. The battle lines can be both grand – planning whole zoning schemas around protecting single-family homes – and minuscule as neighbors bicker (two good examples here and here). The ultimate goal is to have private space where the owners can enjoy the best America has to offer inside their own home.
The single-family suburban home has evolved over the decades. In the mid-nineteenth century, the suburban home was more like a cottage in the woods. Even as mass-produced homes started in the early twentieth century, many suburban homes were still built by small builders or even by residents through the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II, the large subdivision became more common, even if many suburbs and builders never reached the scale of the paradigmatic Levittown on Long Island. These many suburban homes are also marked by a variety of styles, including Victorians in the late 1800s, bungalows in the early 1900s, ranches and Cape Cods in the postwar era, and McMansions in recent decades.
One key marker of American suburban homes is their size. On the world scale, Americans have big homes. The size has steadily increased over recent decades even as many would argue such large homes are not necessary. Why exactly do Americans need such large homes? If they do not regularly use much of the space, why not make and purchase smaller homes? Perhaps they have a lot of stuff, perhaps they simply can afford more space. They probably do not really need it need it but since large homes are common, why not join everyone else? The biggest regret homeowners have is not purchasing a larger home.
The meaning of the single-family home has also changed in significant ways. I’ll highlight two changes here. First, the home is a status symbol. In a consumeristic and wealthy society where what people own presumably says something about them, the home is an important marker. Americans can choose among dozens of kinds of homes in different locations and can endlessly customize the exterior and the interior. Even the lawn can become a coded or not-so-coded message about the owners. Second, the home is an investment. Whereas in the early days a home was a dwelling and private space, most Americans now expect to make good money when they sell their home. This changes how homeowners treat their home as well as how they use the home as part of their wealth portfolio.
All that said, single-family homes can be found in many cities, whether in denser neighborhoods of row houses and brownstones or in more sprawling urban Sunbelt neighborhoods. Yet, I would guess suburban aspirations rarely include images of living in apartments. The dominant picture of suburbia is living on a street of well-kept single-family homes (and this is often replicated in media depictions such as on television shows). Even if suburbs become denser (very likely in numerous locations), the single-family home will remain the key feature of suburban life.