Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs

A financial adviser warns people moving from the city to the suburbs about several costs they might not consider:

Photo by cottonbro on

A larger house equals larger monthly bills…

More space requires more furniture…

You may need a car…

It’s more expensive to commute to work.

A few thoughts on each of these:

  1. The larger monthly bills could vary quite a bit across suburban homes depending on the size of the home, the costs in each municipality, and whether the home is updated (think insulation, efficient appliances, etc.). Best to check on these costs in each possible residence.
  2. There are multiple ways to get cheaper furniture to reduce costs. Not all rooms have to be fully furnished (perhaps less entertaining during COVID-19 helps with this). Rather than focusing on furniture, why not buy a smaller house? Wait, Americans need somewhere to put all their stuff (including furtniture)…
  3. Yes, most suburban living will require a car unless living within walking distance of needs and work or living in an inner-ring suburb with great public transportation. Cars are not cheap once you add up car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance. And cars need parking and storage space with many desiring a garage on their property for that, adding to property costs. But, Americans like their driving in the suburbs.
  4. Commuting can be financially costly as well as stressful. The time might not be as much of an issue (though certain routes in certain locations certainly add up) as the inability to do much else while driving.

Thinking more broadly about suburban costs, I wonder if presenting potential suburban residents the full array of problems with suburbs – financial costs, exclusion, limited cultural amenities, moral minimalism – would change people’s minds. The suburbs have a certain appeal in American life and the suburban single-family home is a strong draw to many.

Avoiding McMansion sized furniture

With new American homes increasing in size over time, it may be hard to find smaller new furniture:

I need help finding a sofa/sleeper that is not “McMansion sized”…

Have added a TV room on my house & would like to put a sofa/sleeper there so it can be used as overflow guest bedroom space. The stores all seem to sell HUGE sofas. Where do I find a (hopefully full size) sofa/sleeper that will not become “The Elephant In The Room”?

In addition to the larger new homes in the United States, might the larger furniture also be due to the growing size of Americans and the increase in obesity rates?

There must be some room in the market for smaller furniture, particularly if tiny houses or micro apartments are gaining in popularity. I know Macy’s has a small furniture line because we purchased a  bed in this line a few years ago – though the furniture isn’t really small but rather simply isn’t oversized. Here is how Macy’s describes this line:

If you’re desperate for more room around your bed, check out small spaces furniture for bedrooms. The Tahoe set has a headboard that’s full of storage space, or opt for a Hawthorne bed with matching leather storage at the foot of the bed. There’s every style from luxury leather to contemporary wooden and padded beds, ready to be dressed up with a striking duvet set.

Transform your space with a great selection of small spaces furniture at Macy’s.

If Americans must fill their larger spaces, they can go with larger furniture or more furniture. Either could fulfill the consumerist ethos…

Expanding beyond making furniture for McMansions

Ashley Furniture has its sights on global markets as it moves past McMansion furniture:

His son, Todd Wanek, the company’s chief executive, says simply: “We want to grow in the 7% to 10% range every single year”—or more than twice the rate of U.S. furniture-industry sales growth in recent years.

Those ambitions are taking the Waneks outside their comfort zone of making furniture styled for American McMansions. Ashley is now trying to sell furniture in Asia, where it is making a much bigger bet than its U.S.-based rivals.

For example, a local partner of Ethan Allen has opened 75 retail outlets in China to showcase upscale products. Ashley is aiming for 1,000 stores in Asia in 10 years, up from its current total of 35. The company also is opening stores in the Middle East and Central America, among other places, partly to reduce its reliance on any one market.

No other U.S. furniture maker has tried to expand internationally on the scale planned by Ashley, and it hasn’t been easy. On a recent Sunday, only a couple dozen customers were browsing at Ashley’s 35,000-square-foot store on four levels in Shanghai’s Zhong Shan Park neighborhood.

Two thoughts:

1. This hints at the larger economic impact of McMansions. While people may focus on the real estate and development aspects (land, constructing homes), there are numerous other goods associated with McMansions from certain kinds of vehicles (the ubiquitous SUVs) to furniture to fill all of those rooms. If real estate has slowed down in the United States in recent years, then such companies will need to change their strategies.

2. This also highlights globalization in one particular industry. Ashley first had to figure out in the 1980s how to compete against global manufacturers and now is looking to capitalize on growing markets elsewhere (even as the American market shows its limits). But, it isn’t just about selling furniture; such furniture requires higher incomes, more middle-class tastes in other countries, and homes where this furniture will fit right in. In other words, this furniture is just a part of exporting the American middle-class dream where one can walk among rows and rows of furniture and easily plunk down some money (or access credit) or update one’s home furnishings.

“The Saddest Office Cubicles”

Wired has a collection of “The Saddest Office Cubicles.”

In 2007, (then known as “Wired News”) asked readers with particularly depressing office cubicles to submit photos of their plight. People hated their cubicles—and rightly so. They didn’t offer any real privacy, but were incredibly effective at communicating office hierarchy. The hatred of this terrible design was clear: Our gallery of “winners” of the saddest-cubicle contest still holds the record for WIRED’s most popular post ever…

The winner — if you can call it winning — of the Wired News saddest-cubicles contest is David Gunnells, an IT guy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His desk is penned in by heavily used filing cabinets in a windowless conference room, near a poorly ventilated bathroom and a microwave. The overhead light doesn’t work — his mother-in-law was so saddened by his cube that she gave him a lamp — and the other side of the wall is a parking garage. Gunnells recalls a day when one co-worker reheated catfish in the microwave, while another used the bathroom and covered the smell with a stinky air freshener. Lovely.

Quite depressing. It is interesting, though, that several of these seem to be the product of what was once a temporary adaptation: because of rearranging or some odd situation, the company threw something together. Perhaps the big problems then come in when these temporary solutions become permanent. I do have to wonder how much these individual workers complained and what responses they heard.

These are the sorts of pictures that probably helped the motivate the writing of Cubed regarding the history and development of modern office settings. Of course, most offices don’t look like this. But, these pictures tend to be popular (the most popular Wired post ever?!?) and it is easy for many workers to see hints of their own workplaces (certain lighting, bland furniture, close quarters, lots of noise, etc.).


The “McMansion Queen Bedroom Set”

Thought McMansion owners couldn’t afford any furniture for their new large house? If they have the money, they may need this bedroom set from The Great Western Furniture Company:

McMansion Queen Bedroom Set


Product Description

A version of our most popular bedroom (the Mansion) with less bulk and all the same beauty! Still solid wood and hand-crafted, this set comes at a great value and features the Queen headboard, footboard, side rails, slats and center support, dresser, mirror, and 1 night stand. The Chest is also available for an additional $265 if you have the room for it!

Three quick thoughts:

1. This furniture set doesn’t look particularly special. But, attaching the name McMansion gives it certain meanings and many of these meanings are not good.

2. That this is a variant of the Mansion set makes sense but seems funny. Is there a smaller split-level set?

3. Is this the sort of furniture McMansion owners across America want?

Assembling your own furniture benefits you through “the Ikea effect”

Ikea may be able to have lower prices because consumers have to put together their own furniture but there could be another benefit as well for consumers: they will value their assembled purchased product more.

“When labor leads to love,” a paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology experimentally tests “the Ikea effect” that leads to people valuing things that they assemble, customize or build themselves more highly than premade, finished goods. We’ve all heard the story of how cake-mixes didn’t sell until they were reformulated to require the “cook” to stir in a fresh egg, but most of what we know about this effect is marketing lore, not research. It’s fascinating stuff.

The abstract of the paper:

In four studies in which consumers assembled IKEA boxes, folded origami, and built sets of Legos, we demonstrate and investigate boundary conditions for the IKEA effect—the increase in valuation of self-made products. Participants saw their amateurish creations as similar in value to experts’ creations, and expected others to share their opinions. We show that labor leads to love only when labor results in successful completion of tasks; when participants built and then destroyed their creations, or failed to complete them, the IKEA effect dissipated. Finally, we show that labor increases valuation for both “do-it-yourselfers” and novices.

I suspected there may not be much positive effect when the consumer can’t assemble their purchase.

While this is interesting in itself, it leads me to another question: were companies like Ikea and others aware of this effect and therefore required assembly for more items so that consumers would have more positive feelings for certain products?

International Furnishings and Design Association survey also suggests McMansions are on the way out

A number of commentators have suggested the era of McMansions is over. A new survey of the American members of the International Furnishings and Design Association agrees with this prediction. Here are some of the findings:

-Americans will be living in smaller spaces with fewer rooms by the year 2020, say more than 76% of IFDA members. Eleven years ago, only 49% foresaw less living space in our future…

-Separate rooms are disappearing; they are blending into spaces that serve many different purposes, believe 91.5% of the design experts – which is exactly what they foresaw back in 2000.

-Furniture also is going multipurpose, say 67.5% of the the IFDA forecasters. They see modular, moveable, and smaller-scaled furniture overtaking built-ins and big pieces. There will be more interest in ergonomic designs – designed to fit the human body – but almost none in furniture designed to be disposable…

-Everyone’s working at home. A home office is a given, say more than three-quarters of the respondents, but here’s the news: Nearly 40% of the forecasters see more than one home office under every roof…

In summary: leaders in the furnishings and design field think that Americans will be living in smaller, more multipurpose spaces.

Several questions regarding these survey findings:
1. How much do those surveyed get to set and sell these product changes in the years to come?
2. If the economy improves dramatically in the next few years, are all these predictions moot?
3. How long before these predictions and ideas become the norm set before average Americans in places like furniture showrooms or on HGTV?
4. What do you do with previous findings of the survey?
a. For example, in 2000, roughly half surveyed thought Americans would be living in smaller spaces. The actual Census numbers about new single-family homes: on average, they were 2,266 square feet, 2,438 square feet in 2009, and 2,392 square feet in 2010. This is still a net gain over most of the decade with a dip between 2008 and 2010. So half of those surveyed in 2000 were wrong?
b. The predictions about the drop in separate rooms were the same now as in 2000. Were they right?
c. If those surveyed can be wrong, what does it mean? Do their companies/firms lose money because they mispredicted the future? Is it really difficult to predict the directions in this particular field and anticipate what the American consumer wants?

C. Wright Mills influences movie about white-collar cubicles

A new movie about white-collar cubicle workers is influenced by the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills:

In his 1951 book “White Collar,” the sociologist C. Wright Mills acknowledged the powerlessness of the white-collar worker while also understanding his importance within a larger context: “Yet it is to this white-collar world that one must look for much that is characteristic of twentieth-century existence … They carry, in a most revealing way, many of those psychological themes that characterize our epoch, and, in one way or another, every general theory of the main drift has had to take account of them.”…

Mills’s thinking was a major inspiration for the filmmaker Zaheed Mawani, who documents the resigned reality of the cubicle-coralled white-collar worker in his new film “Three Walls” (you can watch a clip here). Mawani’s film brings to the screen what numerous long-term studies have shown: that a lack of autonomy over one’s daily tasks leads to boredom (at best), utter despair and even increased mortality rates. Yet, time and again, proposed solutions ignore these deeper issues and focus instead (see last month’s column) on the furniture.

Mawani has used the cubicle to explore larger issues in the world of work. As he and I both discovered, passions run high around the most seemingly banal piece of furniture: it has its arch defenders, its resigned occupiers and its rigorously vocal critics. Mawani was interested in examining what the cubicle has come to represent, as he explained in an e-mail to me, “in terms of the shifting nature of white collar work: the lack of job security, increase in temporary workers, our detachment to work (the fact that we no longer stay in the same job for more than a few years and the ramifications of no longer having that employee-employer bond). It’s also about our relationship to technology, the lack of physicality in work.”

Is there really much more to say about the cubicle, a piece of office furniture that has received much criticism over the years? For many, the cubicle has come to represent a temporary space where workers are simply replaceable cogs in corporate machines that tend to benefit some wealthy owner somewhere else.

This discussion reminds me of the design firm IDEO which has been featured in a number of places for creating a different type of workplace: no walls, open desks, lots of toys, lots of collaborative space, and a lot of interaction between workers of different backgrounds in order to take advantage of everyone’s ideas. For an example of how they operate, I’ve had students watch this old ABC Nightline clip about how the company went about designing a new grocery cart. This sort of office seems to appeal to a younger generation and IDEO argues that it is much more effective. (Humorously, here is IDEO’s attempt to build “Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle.”)

The idea that office furniture can reveal deep-seated cultural themes is intriguing. I’m afraid to ask what someone might be able to see if they had time to observe my office…