At least 12 reasons Americans have the biggest houses in the world

Why do Americans have the largest houses in the world? A lengthy list of reasons:

  1. Americans like private homes. This often means they desire detached single-family homes in the suburbs. So why not have a lot of private space? Similarly, Americans place a lower priority on pleasant public spaces or spending time in public.
  2. The trend toward larger homes really took off in the postwar suburban era. At the time, this could be linked to growing family size with the Baby Boomer generation. (Interestingly, as household sizes decreased in recent years, homes continued to get bigger.)
  3. Americans like to consume. With relatively large amounts of disposable income, Americans need space to store their stuff, ranging from clothes to media to new technological devices to cars. The answer is not to get rid of stuff but rather to have a big house to store bulk goods. Garages are important parts of homes since driving is so important.
  4. Americans have increasingly viewed housing as an investment rather than just a place to live and enjoy. If the goal is to get a big financial windfall later in selling the home, it could pay off now to buy as much as possible.
  5. Compared to some countries, Americans have a lot of land to build and sprawl. Americans have also made different land use decisions to prioritize lower densities and sprawl.
  6. There are regional differences regarding large homes. McMansions are everywhere in the United States but more culturally acceptable in Dallas than in New York City. Many metropolitan regions have housing prices that make having a big house possible (compared to New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle).
  7. Developers and builders are less interested in constructing starter houses as there are more profits in bigger homes.
  8. A number of communities will only allow homes of a certain size in order to maintain their character and status.
  9. The government has provided funding and support for mortgages, suburbanization, and driving over the last century.
  10. Americans have a bigger is better mentality as well as believe that growth is good. This applies to population growth and also applies to houses.
  11. McMansions are popular with some but America has plenty of large homes that would not qualify as McMansions. From large urban condos and homes to large rural properties, Americans can find plenty of big homes to purchase.
  12. The space in homes does not have to be used to be desirable. For some owners, the space itself is just worth having.

(This post was inspired by this recent article. Also, see this earlier post “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”)

Waterbeds and “straitlaced suburban living”

A 2016 piece from Mental Floss connects waterbeds to suburbs:

Although many associate waterbeds with strait-laced suburban living, back in the ‘70s they were a symbol of the free-flowing counterculture movement—more likely to be sold with incense and Doors albums than with fluffy pillows and high thread count sheets. “That fluid fixture of 1970s crash pads” was how a New York Times story from 1986 described them. The names of manufacturers and distributors reflected this: Wet Dream, Joyapeutic Aqua Beds, and Aquarius Products were a few that rolled with the times.

Sex, of course, was a big selling point. “Two things are better on a waterbed,” an Aquarius ad stated. “One of them is sleep.” Another ad proclaimed, “She’ll admire you for your car, she’ll respect you for your position, and she’ll love you for your waterbed.” Hippies and hip bachelors alike were the target market for the bed that promised the motion of the ocean. Hall even got in on the act, offering a $2800 “Pleasure Island” setup, complete with contour pillows, color television, directional lighting, and a bar. Hugh Hefner loved the craze, of course—Hall made him one covered in green velvet, and Hef had another that he outfitted in Tasmanian possum hair.

By the ’80s, waterbeds had moved from the hazy fringe to the commercial mainstream. “It has followed the path of granola and Jane Fonda,” the Times noted. Indeed, waterbeds were available in a variety of styles, from four-post Colonials to Victorian beds with carved headboards to simple, sturdy box frames. Allergy sufferers liked having a dust-free mattress, while back pain sufferers were drawn to the beds’ free-floating quality. Advertisements by sellers like Big Sur Waterbeds played up the health benefits with shirtless, beefy dudes like this one…

By 1984, waterbeds were a $2 billion business. At the height of their popularity, in 1987, 22 percent of all mattress sales in the U.S. were waterbed mattresses.

While the particular history (and then demise) of the waterbed is interesting in itself, it hints at larger patterns. Is this is an isolated story of a product that goes from the counterculture to suburban homes or is this a common pattern among American consumer goods and cultural products? What was once radical or born out of a subgroup can become simply a run-of-the-mill item found in millions of homes. Cool often can only last so long. I am reminded of the argument that the retailer Gap lost its edge when it became another company looking for suburban consumers.

Of all the consumer goods I could think of that are associated with the suburbs, it would be a long time before I made it to waterbed. I might have to start such a list with cars (after ruling out single-family homes because they are too expensive to really quality for such a list).

Bringing the cool parts of suburban life to urban settings

Can the suburban life be imported to residential units in the heart of the biggest American cities?

Your own slice of suburbia within city limits is a concept that developers and retailers across the country have been pitching a lot recently, subtly or not. The pendulum swings of socio-economic and demographic changes over the past two decades in some thriving cities are partly behind this shift…

The dividing line between urban and suburban limits has always been a little murky in most cities, many of which have their own vast stretches of single-family homes with attached garages. But the general idea was that the suburbs offered comfort and personal space, private backyards and a bedroom for each kid. City living was more exciting and offered culture and a more diverse mix of everything, but required some sacrifice. Apartments were smaller, parking a headache and a backyard unimaginable…

One of the Dahlia’s biggest selling points? It has its own parking garage. “You can pull in with your S.U.V., unload and take your things in a private manner,” said Shlomi Reuveni, the president of the company that is handling sales for the building. “That’s very appealing.” And very suburban.

In some high-end buildings, architects are giving apartments the feel of single-family homes by replicating the layouts of suburban houses. At the Quay Tower, which overlooks Brooklyn Bridge Park, there are just five condos on each floor, two of which have private elevator access. Inside, the larger units have something you see a lot of on HGTV suburban house renovation shows: large mudrooms off the back door with locker-like cubbies and sturdy ceramic-tile floors.

As the article goes on to note, more suburban features like mall food courts and white people are headed to cities.

On one head, the melding of lifestyles is not too surprising. In the suburbs, a “surban” lifestyle helps developers and residents differentiate their product and life from the typical suburban lifestyle. Both producers and consumers can seek out new niches.

On the other hand, that the suburban lifestyle may be a selling point is kind of funny because of all the flak the suburban life takes. I thought the suburbs were about exclusion, homogeneity, wastefulness, and individualism? It is not just that some of these features of suburban life have urban analogues. After all, they are both situated within American culture. The idea that certain suburban features, such as garages or mudrooms, will be replicated in cities flies against the claims about tacky suburban life. Suburban consumer goods and lifestyle markers are now cool?

Recycling was only a band-aid; Americans need to consume less

Now that the recycled products of Americans are no longer desirable, perhaps it will start a new broader conversation: when will Americans consume less?

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013.

For a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives. But the costs of all this garbage are growing, especially now that bottles and papers that were once recycled are now ending up in the trash…

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made. But that’s a hard sell in the United States, where consumer spending accounts for 68 percent of the GDP. The strong economy means more people have more spending money, too, and often the things they buy, such as new phones, and the places they shop, such as Amazon, are designed to sell them even more things. The average American spent 7 percent more on food and 8 percent more on personal-care products and services in 2017 than in 2016, according to government data

But even in San Francisco, the most careful consumers still generate a lot of waste. Plastic clamshell containers are difficult to recycle because the material they’re made of is so flimsy—but it’s hard to find berries not sold in those containers, even at most farmers’ markets. Go into a Best Buy or Target in San Francisco to buy headphones or a charger, and you’ll still end up with plastic packaging to throw away. Amazon has tried to reduce waste by sending products in white and blue plastic envelopes, but when I visited the Recology plant, they littered the floor because they’re very hard to recycle. Even at Recology, an employee-owned company that benefits when people recycle well, the hurdles to getting rid of plastics were evident. Reed chided me for eating my daily Chobani yogurt out of small, five-ounce containers rather than out of big, 32-ounce tubs, but I saw a five-ounce Yoplait container in a trash can of the control room of the Recology plant. While there, Reed handed me a pair of small orange earplugs meant to protect my ears from the noise of the plant. They were wrapped in a type of flimsy plastic that is nearly impossible to recycle. When I left the plant, I kept the earplugs and the plastic in my bag, not sure what to do with them. Eventually, I threw them in the trash.

The whole American lifestyle revolves around consumption and includes innumerable objects that are difficult to reuse or refuse. Much of it seems to come under the ideologies of efficiency, cheapness, and convenience. Envision Walmart. It is not just about small items or particular companies; it even makes its way to some of the largest purchases Americans make including buying larger homes to store more stuff.

What would it take to start the ball rolling away from consumption of goods? A small set of Americans have voluntarily done this – I recall reading about downshifters in sociologist Juliet Schor’s twenty year old book The Overspent American. A major company like Amazon or Walmart could make a big dent. Or, perhaps some government regulations might help nudge the free market in the right direction. There is a slight chance a movement of conscious consumers could help lead to change.

And if consumption levels do end up dropping, this could effect all sorts of areas in American social life. What would happen to fast food? The smartphone industry? Housing? Carmakers? Food producers and distributors? Watching it all play out could be fascinating.

Home value algorithms show consumers data with outliers, mortgage companies take the outliers out

A homeowner can look online to get an estimate of the value of their home but that number may not match what a lender computes:

Different AVMs are designed to deliver different types of valuations. And therein lies confusion.

Consumers don’t realize that there’s an AVM for nearly any purpose, which explains why different algorithms serve up different results, said Ann Regan, an executive product manager with real estate analytic firm CoreLogic. “The scores presented to consumers are not the same version that is being used by lenders to make decisions,” she said. “The consumer-facing AVMs are designed for consumer marketing purposes.”

For instance, more accurate models used by lenders do not include outliers — properties that sold for extremely high or low prices and that consequently would skew the averages and the comparable sales for a particular house, like yours. But models used by consumer websites, such as brokers’ sites and national listing sites, scoop in as much “sold” data as possible when concocting a valuation, because then they can claim to include all available data. That’s true, said Regan, but it’s more accurate to weed out misleading data.

AVMs used by lenders send along “confidence scores” that indicate how firm the estimate is. That is a factor typically not included alongside consumer AVMs, she added.

This is an interesting trade-off. The assumption is the consumer wants to see that all the data is accounted for, which makes it seem that the estimate is more worthwhile. More data = more accuracy. On the other hand, those that work with data know that measures of central tendency and variability can be thrown off by unusual cases, often known as outliers. If the value of a home is too high or too low, and there are many reasons why this could be the case, the rest of the data can be thrown off. If there are significant outliers, more data does not equal more accuracy.

Since this knowledge is out there (at least printed in a major newspaper), does this mean consumers will be informed of these algorithm features when they look at websites like Zillow? I imagine it could be tricky to easily explain how removing some of the housing comparison data is actually a good thing but if the long-term goal is better numeracy for the public, this could be a good addition to such websites.

Drawing artistic inspiration from growing up around McMansions

Artist Katherine Vetne builds upon a childhood spent around McMansions:

Vetne says her interests in exploring (and subverting) objects of status and consumerism started when she was growing up in Newburyport, Mass. She observed the differences between established “old money” and the newly affluent: A lot of the newer families built “McMansion” houses that looked like new versions of the town’s historic homes in an attempt to emulate that status.

Those experiences led to a unique form of art:

Vetne, 31, of San Francisco, has been building a reputation as a sculptor who works in an unusual medium: destruction. Vetne’s best-known work during the past three years has been a series of sculptures made from kiln-melted housewares crystal, which takes a distinctive, puddle-like shape when heated.

She then “mirrors” the melted crystal mass in a chemical process that turns the blobs into reflective objects. The pieces are presented individually or in big groups, like in her “Guilty Pleasures” installation that was part of the Catharine Clark Gallery’s summer show, “We tell ourselves stories … In order to live.” Ford and Vetne took the shopping trip at Clark’s invitation to find the raw material for a piece Ford recently commissioned from Vetne.

The idea of working with crystal, whether it’s fine Baccarat or more mass-market Avon, appeals to Vetne, who is interested in exploring issues of class, gender and materialism. “At the crux of my practice is the more middle-class people with some amount of resources trying to look ‘higher class’ than they are through the objects they acquire. I am interested in concepts of visual excess and how they’re supposed to communicate something. Usually, it’s ‘I have a lot of money.’”

Given the general reputation of McMansions, this is not surprising: take objects by which aspiring people try to build up their status and then destroy them to show what those objects are really about. Perhaps it would even be more shocking if an artist celebrated McMansions.

I’m also trying to imagine this destruction process applied to actual McMansions or parts of McMansions. Could a piece of performance art involve taking a wrecking ball to a McMansion? Or, imagine taking a two story foyer to a museum and showing it falling apart every so often, like the way “Concert for Anarchy” displays a piano in an unusual form. Or, take granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and destroy them.

Jell-O and “soul-killing suburbia”

A review of a new family history tells how the narratives links Jell-O and suburbs:

Jell-O might be the glistening dish of picnics and potlucks, but for Allie Rowbottom — a descendant of the Jell-O fortune — it’s both a burden and an abyss. In “Jell-O Girls,” she weaves together her family history and the story of the classic American dessert to produce a book that alternately surprises and mesmerizes. Despite its title, this isn’t a bland tale that goes down easy; “Jell-O Girls” is dark and astringent, a cutting rebuke to its delicate, candy-colored namesake…

“Jell-O Girls” could have easily devoted itself to the tragic fates of those heirs, or what the family called “the Jell-O curse.” A number of Rowbottom’s relatives succumbed to alcoholism and suicide. More money meant more money, but sometimes it also meant more to lose. A great-uncle who divorced and mismanaged his way out of his own fortune threw himself from the roof of a Sheraton hotel.

But Rowbottom’s interest is in the women of her title — namely, herself, her mother and her grandmother…

Jell-O, meanwhile, gets the full semiotics treatment, as Rowbottom shows how it went from a modern, scientific foodstuff to a relic of soul-killing suburbia. As sharp as her insights often are, this is a book in which Everything Signifies. Even a digression about the catacombs in an Italian monastery includes some Jell-O symbolism. You occasionally want to tell Rowbottom to ease up: Sometimes a Jell-O mold is just a Jell-O mold.

It would be interesting to read more about how this connection was made. At the least, I might expect to find:

  1. The rise of mass-produced goods, including food items, and suburbanization. Even as suburban homes went up in mass-produced subdivisions, the goods that filled these houses also often came out of an emerging mass-production economy. Cars, household appliances, furnishings, and food.
  2. The lives of women in suburbs. Numerous scholars have addressed the limited opportunities for women in many mass-produced suburbs as well as the numerous depictions of traditional family life in suburbs.
  3. The banality of Jell-O and the conformity and/or dullness of suburbia. Critics might argue the limited substance of Jell-O matches the boringness of the suburbs.

At the same time, if I had to create a list of consumer objects I would associate with suburbia, I do not think Jell-O would even enter my mind.