Citing religious reasons to give up a McMansion for a doublewide mobile home

Even with the criticism of McMansions, I don’t think many would follow the path of this chaplain/columnist to downsize from a McMansion to a mobile home:

The first thing I grappled with was, “Are you living within your means?”

While it sounds like a question from your financial adviser, it really gets at the spiritual issue of greed. If greed prevents you from reducing your spending, you’ll have a problem, since retirement will often cut one’s income nearly in half…

We sold our suburban home and moved into a doublewide mobile home at half the cost of our old two-story McMansion.

As the months passed, the numbers proved workable. Any greedy impulses that remained began to subside. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to do. We were ready. Our kids were out of the nest and finished with their schooling.

However, we couldn’t have addressed the first question if we had not answered the bigger spiritual question: How much is enough?

While there are plenty of proponents of downsizing, there are two ways that this path is unique:

  1. Downsizing to a mobile home. There are few housing options less liked than McMansions but this would qualify. People think of trailer parks and lower-class residents. They think of dirty homes and lower property values. Often, the discussions of downsizing involve moving to something tasteful and/or customized. The new home may be smaller – wasting less space than the McMansion – but it is not necessarily cheap nor sacrificing much in terms of location and neighbors. For another example, those portrayed on TV as interested in tiny houses are often middle class residents who want a lot of amenities and a calmer life but don’t really want the cheapest housing possible.
  2. The choice is guided by religious values with a wish to live simply in order to avoid greed. Rather than a secular impulse to consume less (for a variety of reasons including environmental concerns, saving money for other desires such as exciting experiences, and avoiding the appearance of conspicuous consumption), this McMansion move gets at an important religious question: how much is enough? I’ve seen very few religious approaches to McMansions. An unwritten stereotype of who owns these places probably puts a lot of southern conservative Protestants into McMansions. But, there are few American religious leaders telling people not to live in places like McMansions, even if they may generally caution people to live too lavishly. (Ironically, McMansions might seem like a good deal then to many religious people because you get a lot of square footage for your money.)

In sum, propose to McMansion critics that we should swap McMansions for doublewides for religious reasons and the idea may not be greeted favorably.

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.)

Were McMansions ever for everybody?

There is an idea out there that McMansions were everywhere at some point, invading the countryside and were within the financial means of all Americans. A recent Australian headline reminded me of this: “Small, smart, sustainable: Why a ‘McMansion’ isn’t for every Canberra homeowner.” The article goes on to argue that market forces are pushing people toward large houses that they don’t need.

I’ve never seen hard numbers on this – nobody is really measuring McMansion construction – but we can make some guesses based on Census data about the number of new homes of certain square feet. Between 1999 and 2016, the percent of new homes over 3,000 square feet was between 17% and 31%. Not all of these homes are McMansions for a variety of reason: some are too large (over 10,000 square feet or so), some are not architecturally garish or discombobulated. Based on this, maybe 15-20% of all new homes since 1999 were McMansions? That is a sizable amount but not a majority.

Additionally, how many Americans could afford such homes? At the peak of the housing bubble, not everyone could buy a large new home in a nice community. Could everyone in the middle class access such a home at some point over this time period? Maybe. And that doesn’t even account for whether those who could afford McMansions wanted one (maybe 50% of Americans at most would want one?) or had other considerations when purchasing their home that led to another housing option.

McMansions have certainly exerted influence over the last few decades, particularly among the upper-middle class, in certain communities (generally whiter and wealthier communities), and in depictions of newer housing on TV and in movies. But, I don’t think they have been pervasive as sometimes is suggested.

The Bachelorette may be the best use for a McMansion

With the criticism that McMansions receive, are there any contexts where they are appropriate? I submit that The Bachelor/Bachelorette shows are one such setting:

  1. The home needs to be big. The latest version of The Bachelorette started with 31 suitors. Not only is space needed to house all of them, a McMansion has big spaces like the living room or pool area where lots of people can congregate.
  2. The home needs to be garish and over the top.  For a show that knows it can’t take itself too seriously (are the contestants here for “the right reasons”?), the loud house works just fine.
  3. Having a big, well-appointed house fits with the show’s fantasy theme. Everyone knows that most relationships don’t start and/or occur in huge houses, on adventurous and/or fancy dates, and on trips around the globe. But, watching everyone interact in a 1950s ranch home simply wouldn’t fit with the dream-like aspect of the show. (Indeed, it is an interesting contrast to juxtapose the parts of the show that take place in the McMansion versus the home visit weeks where the families of contestants live in more normal settings.) Big features that are clearly visible on TV? Large pool and hot tub? Vaguely Mediterranean style? Check, check, and check.

For the average American household – less than five people – the home used on the show doesn’t make much sense. But, as a key setting for a fanciful TV dating show, it may be perfect.

McMansions to blame for the decreasing tree cover in Los Angeles

A recent study suggests the rise of McMansions has contributed to a loss of trees in Los Angeles:

Americans’ growing preference for large single-family houses, along with the increase in driveways and swimming pools that come with home expansion, is the largest driver of tree cover loss in the US, according to the study.

Looking at satellite imagery and data from the LA County assessor’s office, the researchers found about one-third of the city’s trees in single-family housing neighborhoods was eliminated from 2000 to 2009. During that period, tree cover may have decreased up to 55%…

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that 1950s suburban development may have been good for trees, at least in LA. Private land owners planted trees on their land during that decade, contributing to a richer urban forest in the city.

“These ecologically beneficial consequences occurred organically — not as the result of conscious environmental policy, but rather as an outgrowth of the cultural aesthetic and economics of the times,” the researchers write.

This leads to several thoughts:

  1. Perhaps it is time to again modify Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” to something like: “They paved paradise to put up a McMansion.”
  2. Cities can often have a lot of trees. This may be counterintuitive: when people imagine cities, they think of skyscrapers and a concrete jungle. While there may not be many forests in the city, there can be plenty of trees.
  3. With the praise given to ranch homes here, couldn’t McMansions reduce the issues by just planting trees? Those 1950s subdivisions didn’t have many trees at the time either – the classic images of Levittown often shows houses and bare land – and it took time for them to become the classic tree-lined suburban streets.

Can you spell McMansion?

The word McMansion knocked out a Wisconsin contestant in the national spelling bee:

Wisconsin is out of the Scripps National Spelling Bee after all three of our representatives were knocked out of the competition, including Hanna Ghouse, 13, from Kenosha after she misspelled the word “McMansion” Wednesday.

However, TODAY’S TMJ4 wanted to put some average spellers to the test to see how they fared. We gave them the two commonly misspelled words according to Google, and Ghouse’s word “McMansion.”…

But to really put people to the test we gave them the word our local Scripps Spelling Bee contestant missed Wednesday, “McMansion.”

I guess the difficulty of the word is its relative lack of use. How often does the average person hear or see the word? Not often. A search of Google Ngram suggests the word is not used in many books though there has been a rise since the late 1990s. Perhaps someone is most likely to hear the term if they live in an older but attractive neighborhood where people are interested in tearing down the homes and constructing McMansions.

McMansions as status symbol in Dallas

Leave it to Richard Spencer to describe the place of the McMansion in the Dallas area:

“My upbringing did not really inform who I am,” Spencer said with a shrug. Then he reconsidered. “I think in a lot of ways I reacted against Dallas. It’s a class- and money-conscious place—whoever has the biggest car or the biggest house or the biggest fake boobs,” he told me. “There’s no actual community or high culture or sense of greatness, outside of having a McMansion.” He emphasized culture in a way that evoked a full-bodied, Germanic sense of Kultur. In fact, Spencer has joked that he would like to be the Kulturminister of a white “ethno-state.” He imagines himself having a heroic role in the grand cycle of history. “I want to live dangerously,” he said. “Most people aspire to mediocrity, and that’s fine. Not everyone can be controversial. Not everyone can be recognized by a random person in a restaurant.”

I have some familiarity with how the McMansion is described in Dallas – see my published article on the use of “McMansion” in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News – and Spencer sounds about right. In a sprawling suburban setting, what sets people apart? One trait can be the ability to own an impressive looking home.

Additionally, Spencer utilizes some of the familiar critiques that the suburbs lack interaction or anything beyond mass or lowbrow culture. Of course, these concerns lead him to a different place than many suburban critics; Spencer advocates for an ethno-state and most suburban critics make a pitch for diverse urban settings. More broadly, this is a reminder that disliking the suburbs doesn’t necessarily have to lead to visions of pluralistic large cities.