Why Americans love suburbs #1: single-family homes

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.

85 thoughts on “Why Americans love suburbs #1: single-family homes

  1. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #6: local government, local control | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: West Chicago in the news for the wrong reasons | Legally Sociable

  3. Pingback: When considered redevelopment projects, balancing concerns of neighbors and “market demand” | Legally Sociable

  4. Pingback: Suburban schools (“institutions that are supposed to be the best”) and race (“the deeper systematic issues of race in this country”) | Legally Sociable

  5. Pingback: The consequences of self-driving cars as “rooms with wheels” | Legally Sociable

  6. Pingback: Would more Americans move to cities if they could live in a suburban neighborhood in city limits? | Legally Sociable

  7. Pingback: Murdered cats and discussing suburban troubles in the US and Britain | Legally Sociable

  8. Pingback: People can live in modernist glass houses…if they have 6 acres in the woods | Legally Sociable

  9. Pingback: Seeing residential segregation in House Hunters | Legally Sociable

  10. Pingback: When more technology leads to more traffic | Legally Sociable

  11. Pingback: US now has 201 communities with median home values over $1 million | Legally Sociable

  12. Pingback: Quick Review: “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” | Legally Sociable

  13. Pingback: Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade” | Legally Sociable

  14. Pingback: Kotkin argues both political parties want to destroy single-family home suburbia | Legally Sociable

  15. Pingback: The difficulties of promoting mass transit in a decentralized landscape | Legally Sociable

  16. Pingback: Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia | Legally Sociable

  17. Pingback: Of course Tidying Up with Marie Kondo starts in Lakewood, CA | Legally Sociable

  18. Pingback: A call for the Green New Deal to address sprawl and where people live | Legally Sociable

  19. Pingback: #1 payment priority for Americans: car loan | Legally Sociable

  20. Pingback: What I want to know: do TV shows push viewers to buy certain kinds of houses? | Legally Sociable

  21. Pingback: Many Americans can’t afford a McMansion (even if they might aspire to one) | Legally Sociable

  22. Pingback: Get creative and sell home and new car together as package deal | Legally Sociable

  23. Pingback: Imagining suburbs completely covered by security cameras from single-family homes | Legally Sociable

  24. Pingback: I have always lived within roughly 15 minutes of a major highway: easy access, no noise | Legally Sociable

  25. Pingback: Cooking meat in a suburban backyard and resolving suburban conflicts | Legally Sociable

  26. Pingback: Waterbeds and “straitlaced suburban living” | Legally Sociable

  27. Pingback: At least 12 reasons Americans have the biggest houses in the world | Legally Sociable

  28. Pingback: Looking for stories of millennials and young adults who want to and enjoy living in suburban homes | Legally Sociable

  29. Pingback: The little development battles happening across American suburbs | Legally Sociable

  30. Pingback: Can Starbucks be a third place when its drive-through is so full? | Legally Sociable

  31. Pingback: Contrasting tiny weddings to reduced interest in McMansions and SUVs | Legally Sociable

  32. Pingback: Will more cameras tracking public activity push Americans to be even more private? | Legally Sociable

  33. Pingback: Racialized McMansions | Legally Sociable

  34. Pingback: Americans like their private single-family homes – but maybe less if forced to be there | Legally Sociable

  35. Pingback: Designing homes to be “everything all at once” for times when everyone is home all the time | Legally Sociable

  36. Pingback: The difficulties for public institutions and spaces after COVID-19 | Legally Sociable

  37. Pingback: Another claim that COVID-19 will push people to the suburbs | Legally Sociable

  38. Pingback: Will the suburbs look better moving forward because of COVID-19? | Legally Sociable

  39. Pingback: Suburban video doorbell surveillance and race | Legally Sociable

  40. Pingback: Leisure differences by race and class in time of COVID-19 | Legally Sociable

  41. Pingback: Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes | Legally Sociable

  42. Pingback: Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history | Legally Sociable

  43. Pingback: Houston as the example of what decentralized pluralism and social trust could look like? | Legally Sociable

  44. Pingback: Online real estate shift during COVID-19 reinforces the private nature of American homes | Legally Sociable

  45. Pingback: Missing any conversation about housing in the 2020 presidential campaign | Legally Sociable

  46. Pingback: Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs | Legally Sociable

  47. Pingback: It’s the time of year of suburban pressure to clear leaves | Legally Sociable

  48. Pingback: Proposing the rowhouse as the solution to an over-priced housing, McMansion world | Legally Sociable

  49. Pingback: Driving less in the suburbs, a space devoted to driving | Legally Sociable

  50. Pingback: Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition | Legally Sociable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s