“McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children”

A Connecticut architect considers the McMansion legacy left by a generation of homeowners and builders:

Skyscrapers are the image of New York. The White House is more America than a home. And McMansions have become a punchline. When I sought to find land in 1982, a broker pushed a building lot in a McMansion development, pushing its allure by flatly asserting, “We’re talking about some seriously beautiful homes here.”…

Time has not been kind to we boomers. We basically tanked the entire world’s economy with “irrational exuberance” that found its most publicly grotesque distortion in those McMansions. Make no mistake millions of less-than-McMansions had more distortional impact on the credit markets than the hundreds of thousands of McMansion, let alone the one-off attempts by individuals who try to buy social legitimacy by building large homes — the real mansions…

McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children, the millennials, who have had the worst economic birthing since the Great Depression. Kate Wagner was barely in her 20s when she called out the final fruits of 40 years of serial housing booms that afflicted America. But the impact of in-your-face domestic chest-beating is especially present in Connecticut, which realtor.com trumpeted as having the “metro” with the third most McMansions in the country. And that impact was doubled down by the added insult of unending instant “tear-downs” of those homes built in the previous generation in the tight Northeast.

As an architect I have remade any number of these instantly dated ego vehicles. We have also revived any number of raised ranches, garrison colonials and Capes. Often those homes need strategic expansion. But with McMansions, removal of the offending detail and pretense is often the first remediation.

I like the idea that a social group – here the emphasis is on Baby Boomers – can leave a physical legacy for later members of the same society. People do not just pass down values, norms, and behaviors; they also leave a physical landscape and places that they have made and shaped. Even though we do not focus much on this in the United States, these places shape us and also provide inertia for what future residents will experience. McMansions have the potential to influence millions of lives even as the original designers, builders, and residents may no longer be present.

At the same time, I wonder how obvious the excesses of the McMansion were while they were being constructed in large numbers. It is relatively easy today to look at them with disdain or wonder at what prompted them. A blog like McMansion Hell has the benefits of hindsight as well as new eyes from a younger resident from a different generation. Did this architect call out McMansions back in the 1990s when wealthy Connecticut communities built them in large numbers? My own research suggests the tide starts to turn against McMansions in the early to mid 2000s as consistent critiques of their architecture and consumption arise as well as there are enough of them in communities across the United States to see them as a single phenomenon.

Going forward, I don’t think McMansions will disappear. There is plenty of money to be made in McMansions compared to building smaller housing units. It is not clear that all millennials or future homebuyers will see them as homes to be avoided. And many of the McMansions critics say are poorly built and designed will last for decades.

Homeownership rate up, driven by millennials

Millennials buying homes helped push the national homeownership rate higher:

The homeownership rate for Americans under 35 jumped to 36.8 percent in the third quarter, highest in five years, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. The share of millennial homeowners was up sharply, from 36.5 percent in the second quarter and 35.6 percent a year earlier. That’s still below the historically normal 40 percent-plus share for Americans that age.

But the young adults, largely first-time homebuyers, drove the national homeownership rate to 64.4 percent – highest since 2014 – from 64.3 percent the prior quarter…

Skylar Olsen, director of economic research for real estate site Zillow, says the slowing housing market actually has aided millennials who are facing somewhat less competition as they hunt for their first home…

The surge in millennial homeownership is a sign the recent housing slowdown is likely temporary, McLaughlin says. “Because that group is so big, it can help support the U.S. housing market indefinitely,” he says.

Millennials are good for something! Someone has to want to buy all those homes that Baby Boomers will soon make available.

Seriously though, two thoughts based on this data:

  1. Even with this news, expect the increasing ability of millennials to buy homes to lead to steady progress, not huge changes in homeownership (which had reached record low rates).
  2. Even with their economic troubles, millennials would prefer not to rent in the long run and would like to own homes, preferably in the suburbs.

For the housing market to really take off, both millennials and Baby Boomers need to want to and be able to move into homes they want.

 

The big Baby Boomer house does not necessarily equal a Mcmansion

A recent analysis on Realtor.com uses the term McMansion as shorthand for a large house owned by a Baby Boomer. Here is the crux of the argument regarding the habits of millennials:

“They’ll buy a smaller house with fancier amenities, close to town, rather than chase square footage,” Dorsey says.

This argument has been made for several years now: millennials are willing to live in smaller homes but desire certain amenities. But, is every big house a McMansion? No, no, no – a minority of American homes are over 3,000 square feet but not all of them are McMansions. Even if they meet the size requirement, they may not be teardowns, suffer architecturally, or exist in lonely suburban communities or all house crass consumers or the nouveau riche. And do all Baby Boomers live in McMansions? Of course not. There may be broad patterns at play here – Baby Boomers have plenty of houses to sell, millennials may not want all of those particular homes – but using loaded terms like McMansions or suggesting incompatibility across entire generations may be going too far.

Side note: this Baby Boomers vs. millennials in the housing market is gaining steam across media sources. How will the Boomers sell all of their houses? (See earlier posts here and here.) What do millennials want in houses and communities? (See earlier posts here and here.)

Predicting the “great senior sell-off” to come

Here is an update on one event that might be coming down the road: the time when the Baby Boomers decide to sell their homes.

Nelson pointed to the affordability issue as well as the fact that about a quarter of Millennials prefer urban housing, such as condos or townhouses, over the detached suburban homes that were the Boomers’ preferred habitat. Younger buyers, he said, will also be looking for starter homes—smaller than the big Colonials and split-levels that line America’s cul-de-sacs. “We can predict the next housing crash,” he said at the time. “That’ll be in about 2020.”

Four years later, Nelson tells CityLab that that he believes the sell-off will still occur—but later, in the mid- to late 2020s. This has to do with people deciding to defer selling their homes, hoping to get a better price later than settling for a lower price now. “Home values in much of the country are still less than those before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009,” he says. Prior to the recession, the typical homeowner would sell a house about every six years. “It was like clockwork,” says Nelson. “This drove a lot of planning and development projections.”…

Nelson predicts that the fringe areas surrounding cities will bring the biggest headaches for Boomers looking to unload their houses. Because Millennials will be looking for small homes when they finally start to buy in larger numbers, the sprawling McMansions of the exurbs won’t be desirable to many of them. “The Boomers in the exurbs are going to be in a real pickle,” says Nelson. “Even in a dynamic market like Washington, D.C. or other booming cities, the market for those homes is going to be soft.”…

But many analysts do agree on one thing: More housing will need to be built for Millennials—and it needs to be scaled to their desires, not their parents’s. “Millennials are likely to prioritize different features in their homes, such as greener materials or in-law suites,” says Molinsky. And according to the Harvard Joint Center’s projections, nearly 90 percent of those looking for homes in 2035 will be under 35 or 70 and over—and both groups tend to buy less square footage.

I suppose we’ll see what happens. I tend to think that Millennials might not be as transformative as some have suggested in regards to where they want to live or in what kinds of houses they inhabit. At the same time, there may be fewer Millennials than Baby Boomers in the market for housing – both due to different sizes of the various cohorts as well as the limited purchasing power of some Millennials  which means it could take some time for those Baby Boomer dwellings to find buyers.

It is also interesting to consider what might happen if these homes, particularly those on the metropolitan fringes, can’t be sold. Would they be demolished? Converted? The community retrofitted? Drop to a low enough price that they become very attractive to certain groups? We have plenty of history as a country of people spreading out but not much experience with any serious contraction.

Baby Boomers contributing to slow real estate market

Experts suggest the inaction of Baby Boomers is adding to a slow real estate market:

Boomers are part of a “clogging up [of] the whole chain of home sales,” Sean Becketti, chief economist of giant mortgage investor Freddie Mac, told me last week.

“They appear to be staying in the family home longer than previous generations,” Becketti wrote in a new outlook report, “and the imbalance between housing demand and supply continues to boost prices.”

Of course, boomers’ behavior has had outsize effects on the national economy for decades. In real estate, their footprint is enormous. Becketti cites the Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances, which estimated in 2013 that households led by people age 55 and older controlled two-thirds of all home equity. One federal estimate puts the aggregate value of their houses at close to $8 trillion.

In past generations, once the kids moved out, empty nesters began to downsize, either purchasing smaller houses or renting apartments. Boomers don’t seem to be in a rush to do either.

While bigger and more expensive housing is moving more quickly, it is at the lower end of the market – smaller and cheaper homes – that needs help. Where are the starter homes for younger adults? It could be a combination of developers focusing on homes with higher profit margins, millennials waiting longer to purchase homes, and older residents staying put longer. This not only affects different age groups; it also has an overall impact on the supply of affordable housing for anyone which is lacking in many major metropolitan regions.

So what kind of incentives would convince Baby Boomers to move?

Preparing for a lot more baby boomer friendly housing

An aging population means that more Americans are going to be looking for housing that meets their needs – and there may not be enough of it:

While affordability is a problem on the horizon for some older residents, accessibility challenges are virtually guaranteed for all. While increased life expectancy and a factor that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cites as “compression of morbidity” means that older generations (even beyond the Baby Boomers) are living actively later into life, disability eventually affects almost everyone. One of the great equalizers in life, disability arrives without any deference to income or race. (Privilege in these realms often makes it easier for people to adjust to disabilities, of course.)…

The housing stock built for Baby Boomers largely wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. There are five universal-design housing features that tend to address a variety of disabilities that residents face as they age: no-step entries; single-floor living; switches and outlets set at lower heights; extra-wide hallways and doors; and lever-style doors and faucets. Nearly 90 percent of existing homes have one of these features, according to the report—but just 57 percent have two…

Homes built more recently are more likely to accommodate all five universal-design features. Among these universal-design features, the one that’s most common in homes today is the single floor. More than 86 percent of homes in non-metro areas features single-floor living. These figures for cities and suburbs are high as well: 74 and 72 percent, respectively.

Yet these detached, single-floor, single-family homes—and the automobile-centric society that comes with them—are only going to fall further out of step with the needs of residents over time. And sooner rather than later. Homes can be retrofitted with lever-style handles and no-step entries (albeit at great expense). It’s much harder to turn exurban and rural communities where older Americans live into places that nurture seniors rather than isolate them.

A range of issues to consider from design to the layout of communities. Given the retirement savings of Americans, how many of them could afford to move to a new or retrofitted home as they age? One benefit of aging is that these Americans could theoretically have already paid off their homes or gotten close to that point, capping how much they spend on housing. How many want to search out a new mortgage or pay for potentially costly renovations? Some possible solutions:

1. Building more housing for all ages that meet these guidelines. Accessibility can be an issue even for younger residents.

2. Finding funds at a federal or lower level of government to help people retrofit their current residents to better meet these standards. This has the benefit of helping them do what many want as well as letting them stay engaged in and involved with the communities they care about.

3. Aging Americans living in suburbs is a tougher issue as it often requires dependence on a car and it is more difficult to distribute social services. This might require finding ways to make single-family homes multi-unit or building pockets with suburbs that cater to older residents (and not necessarily creating whole new communities like Del Webb).

Millennials move into suburbs and less dense big cities and other urban population shifts

A new report from Trulia looks at where millennials and Baby Boomers moved as well as population growth in cities:

Extrapolating from the census data, a separate report from San Francisco-based real estate research firm Trulia Inc. showed where different age groups lived in 2013. Contrary to popular thought, millennials – Americans 20 to 34 years old – actually moved more into big-city suburbs and lower-density cities rather than dense urban areas. The three fastest growing millennial metropolitan areas were Peabody, Massachusetts, a town north of Boston, Colorado Springs, Colorado and San Antonio.

Americans 50 to 69 years old also flocked most to the “second quartile of counties,” wrote Trulia Chief Economist Jed Kolko, or big city suburbs and lower density cities. The fastest growing areas for baby boomers were Austin, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Dallas – all places that already have high concentrations of young people. In fact, Austin has the highest share of millennials than any other large metropolitan area, the Trulia report showed…

“The trend in the past year was that boomer growth [took place] in millennials’ favorite places,” Kolko says.

The population of the youngest Americans, or those ages 5 and younger, grew fastest in big cities like Washington, D.C. and New York. Frey has studied demographic changes in New York and says since 2010, there’s been a growth in the under 5 population in all of the boroughs except for Staten Island.

The biggest surprise here seems to be that more millennials moved to “big-city suburbs & lower-density cities.” At the same time, the population growth differences between the four quartiles of counties are not that large – the analysis shows roughly 0.2% differences.

Another note: the South and West continue to lead the way (all those less dense cities due to different zoning rules, annexation policies, and waves of development) in this analysis with the occasional city from elsewhere sneaking in occasionally.