The rise of beach McMansions in New Jersey, Florida

Large homes are not just for suburban locations. Two recent pieces highlighted their role in changing beach communities. First, from New Jersey:

Decades ago, when I was a teenager, I rented a surf shack in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. Four of us crammed into a squat cinder-block hut tucked behind a bungalow. We worked as lifeguards for $2.50 an hour. Still, our rent was only $187.50 each for the summer. We had a place to sleep, shower, and create memories. We didn’t need more…

But there is another less visible cost that rarely gets mentioned when Americans talk about coastal development and risks. Since the modern coast emerged after the Second World War, a series of land bubbles have wildly inflated land values, to the point that many ordinary families can no longer afford to live at the coast, or even afford a weekly summer rental. On Long Beach Island, a popular resort in Ocean County, where I worked as a lifeguard, $15 billion worth of property now crowds a narrow, 18-mile-long shoreline. The average price of a new home is about $1.1 million, with many costing millions more. Rentals run as high as $5,000 a week. Yet, paradoxically, the island was conceived by Morris Shapiro and other developers as an enclave for middle-class and blue-collar families – teachers, plumbers, electricians, and so forth…

I suppose it is unsurprising there are few, if any, surf shacks left. Most beach towns have been supersized. But unanticipated costs have come with that growth. High school and college students have few places to live and the labor pool for lifeguards, waitresses, hotel workers, amusement-ride operators, and so on has shrunk dramatically. Many shore towns now rely on a special federal visa program to supply summer help. Workers come from Eastern Europe, Ireland, even Australia. Even so, some businesses have been forced to cut hours or even close.

The change over multiple decades is drastic.

And from the Gulf Coast of Florida:

Anna Maria Island may be largely built-out, but that hasn’t stopped developers from buying older existing homes, tearing them down and replacing them with new high-end homes…

Officials in the cities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach say it is a worrisome long-term trend and that they are doing their best to maintain the island’s unique character and sense of place…

Stephen Gilbert, building official for the city of Bradenton Beach, said the land is often much more valuable than the existing older home that sits on the lot.

Of the new homes built in the last decade in Bradenton Beach, only a couple were intended as homes for the owners. The others were intended as investments to be quickly turned over for more cash, he said.

While the change here has come more recently, it sounds like a similar process: people with money and/or an interest in investments come in, tear down older homes, and construct beach McMansions. This has happens over a sustained period of time and the feel of neighborhoods and communities changes.

These changes certainly have local effects on hundreds of beach communities across the United States but there are larger processes at work. Are the big homes the cause or the symptom of bigger issues? The nature of real estate capital today plus the rapid rise in real estate values puts even small communities at the mercy of global markets. Communities can respond but turning down big amounts of new money is not easy and often requires significant opposition from local residents and leaders.

McMansion values still slow to recover in one wealthy Chicago suburb

The values of McMansions may be proportionally down and evidence from one well-off Chicago suburb suggests they are selling at similar prices to 15 years ago:

In South Barrington, home to swathes of McMansions, the market has been slow to recover. There, large single family homes regularly hit the market at the same prices they sold for in the ’00s, indicating an enduring lack of demand in the northwestern suburb.

Despite the risk that these homes presented leading up to the recession, it would seem they’re a more sensible investment today — so long as buyers know what they’re getting into. Pound for pound, McMansions are a ton of house for the money. But they’re not speculative equity, and they’re not a retirement account.

It would be helpful to see more data across suburbs. Without such figures, it is hard to know if:

  1. Is this an issue related to Barrington and its location and amenities? The suburb is almost all white and Asian and has a median housing value of just over $800,000. Is there less demand for housing in this particular location?
  2. Is this a problem for all McMansions in the Chicago area? If people are indeed seeking more “surban” locations or Baby Boomers are all trying to unload their McMansions at once, there might be relatively few buyers for such homes in a region of over 9 million residents.
  3. Are the particular features of these homes limiting the value? This could be due to particular features of the homes or many are now up for updates that have not been done.

The issue may not be McMansions at all: perhaps it is the mindset common among Americans that houses should be investments that increase significantly in value.

Will millennials kill McMansions?

Millennials get blamed for a lot of things and here is another possible area where their choices may have consequences: the selling and buying of McMansions.

The end of so-called “McMansions” has been predicted several times over the years, but those large, mass-produced houses that the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964) favored as a status symbol kept coming back. Now, baby boomers are entering their 70s and 80s and many are looking to downsize, but they are finding it hard to offload these large homes, facing a paucity of buyers among the millennial generation (born 1982-2000), who are unable to pay the prices they want.

For anxious sellers, however, respite could be around the corner as mortgage interest rates ease, and the millennial generation becomes qualified for more and bigger loans, experts say…

A big problem for the McMansion market is the mismatch between where millennials prefer to live and where those large houses have been built. The younger generation gravitates to cities – where their jobs are — whereas baby boomers have built their homes in suburban locations…

Keys wondered if the housing preferences of the younger generation have truly changed or if there is only a “delay” in the demand for McMansions. Those homes may not be desirable to people in their late 20s but instead to people in their late 30s or 40s, he noted.

This is not the first time I have seen the suggestion that millennials have less interest in McMansions: Builder had a piece on this a few years back. And the baby boomers may have a problem bigger than just McMansions: who will buy all their homes, McMansions and otherwise? When housing becomes a primary investment for so many Americans, not having enough future buyers can become problematic.

More broadly, this discussion follows a typical pattern for stories and studies about millennials: will they act like previous generations (and have not done so thus far for a variety of reasons including an economic crisis and student loan debt) or do they truly have different tastes and want to lead different lives? In the realm of those who care about cities and suburbs, this is an ongoing discussion spanning years: will millennials be suburbanites or city-dwellers? Will they reject lives built around single-family homes and driving and prefer denser, diverse, culturally-rich communities (or a mix of both in “surban” places)?

If I had to guess, this group will exhibit some change from previous groups but probably not drastic change (based on the idea that social change tends to happen more slowly over time). Reversing suburban culture, ingrained among many American institutions and residents, would like take decades and not just one generation. The McMansions of older residents may not all sell at their preferred prices but barring another housing bubble (which could happen), they will be worth some money.

The late 2000s “global economic meltdown” and values of McMansions

One columnist connects the economic crisis of the late 2000s and McMansion values:

Perhaps you thought the last decade’s global economic meltdown, which crushed stock prices and McMansion values, would most hurt the wealthy. Nope. The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. expanded in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The (sarcastic) good news: America’s wealth gap expanded less than Bulgaria’s between 2010 and 2017.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. McMansions are often cited as a symptom of the problems that led to the economic crisis and housing bubble of the late 2000s. The spirit of consumption in the United States with lenders providing more and more risky loans (and not recognizing the problematic loans and then selling and buying them as if they were good investments) plus decisions by consumers to purchase more and acquire debt all contributed to the larger issues. If you needed one symbol of excessive consumption from the early 2000s, commentators often go for the McMansion or the SUV.
  2. While the McMansion became an important symbol, housing prices almost across the board declined precipitously. Not just McMansions were affected. And since most American single-family homes are not McMansions, it seems a bit odd to single them out here. Many Americans who would not or could not purchase McMansions felt the effect of declining property values.
  3. Housing construction declined during and stayed depressed for a number of years after the economic crisis. Even during this down time, builders continued to construct McMansions. And once the economy started to pick up, more McMansions appeared. While the economic trends certainly affect how many McMansions go up, the style of home has some staying power. Even if such homes helped contribute to the economic crisis, some Americans still want to build and buy them. The value of such homes may not be the only reason people build and buy them.

If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions

McMansions are rarely celebrated and are often skewered (read more here and here). Yet, given the number of McMansions constructed in recent decades plus the number of Americans who live in McMansions, I predict this: we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine at least a few McMansion preservation districts or homes converted into museums and/or local history sites to help future American residents envision the past.

Critics argue McMansions have a multiple negative traits including their size, their architecture, and what they stand for. At the same time, not all buildings and structures that are preserved or celebrated are ones that all Americans celebrate. Take but three examples: ranch homes, modernist homes, and Brutalist buildings. Ranch homes have their own proponents and backers but they are also derided for their simplicity and lack of traditional architecture, particularly in mass-produced suburbia. Modernist homes may catch the eye of architects and those interested in minimalist design but I think more Americans would prefer a McMansion. And Brutalist architecture may come under fire but a number of prominent public buildings in this style still stand and will be preserved.

If future Americans want to understand typical life at the turn of the twenty-first century, they may need to see and tour a suburban McMansion. This does not mean that the presentation will be all positive. Those future visitors may scoff at the open design, the architectural mish-mash, the hobby rooms and copious amounts of storage space, the granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, the use of McMansions in horror stories, and the rows upon rows of such homes. Or, such a preserved home might endeavor to explain why Americans continued to buy McMansions even with the negative connotations of the term.

I look forward to seeing some of the first McMansion preservation sites. These may be both business and community opportunities as well as part of an effort by Americans to better understand their own past. And because there are so many McMansions and they are so emblematic of a particular era, let the era of McMansion preservation begin.

“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.

McMansion literary tales: a proposed teardown leads to local dysfunction

The McMansion continues to feature in literary works. A new book from a Washington D.C. area author uses a proposed teardown McMansion to highlight suburban issues:

Coincidence or not, Langsdorf’s success comes after leaving her longtime suburban existence. Following her 2012 divorce, Langsdorf moved to Adams Morgan in the District and devoted herself to writing while teaching yoga on the side. And yet, the book takes her back to that former life: “White Elephant” seems to channel all of the frustrations she felt juggling her identities as a mother and creator in a stifling suburb. The novel follows the residents of the fictional enclave of Willard Park — inspired, in part, by Langsdorf’s hometown of Kensington, Md. — where an interloper’s plans to build a McMansion amid the cozy bungalows leads to angry town halls, scandalous romantic dalliances and shady high jinks.

Like Langsdorf, two of the main characters in her ensemble are mothers grappling with their identities beyond being wives and mothers. Allison Miller, who has lived (mostly) happily in Willard Park for more than a decade, wonders what to do with her photography — more than a hobby, less than a career. Her new next-door neighbor, Kaye Cox, can’t figure out who to be, caught between her role as a fixture in her husband’s behemoth of a house and her own interest in interior decoration. These women and their author are well-acquainted with the eternal dilemma for parents, the pull between caregiving duties and other interests, professional and personal…

Almost every neighborhood in the D.C. region has experienced a version of the changes in “White Elephant.” Even Adams Morgan: The Line hotel, for example, occupies a building that was once a church. Langsdorf laughs about some of the struggles she’s seen in her own building, hastening to add that her fellow co-op residents are all great neighbors.

The residents of Willard Park come to realize that houses matter less than their inhabitants — and that the suburbs aren’t for everyone. Langsdorf understands this, too; in her current existence she feels more herself. “My life is much more vibrant,” she says. “I love being able to walk everywhere, and I do have more time to write.”

That a proposed McMansion could lead to “dalliances” and “high jinks” is intriguing to consider…the angry public meetings are much easier to verify.

While it would not have been possible to discuss McMansions before the 1980s since the term did not exist, it sounds like this new work draws on several common suburban critiques featured in novels, films, television shows, and other cultural products. Suburban residents, particularly women and mothers, feel trapped by suburban expectations and a landscape that does not easily lead to human connection or diverse experiences. They then look for ways to break free of the suburban mold and explore different outlets.

These works tend to emphasize those that feel “the suburbs aren’t for everyone.” At the same time, many Americans live in the suburbs by choice and I assume a good number of suburbanites feel their existence is at least okay. Is it because cultural works need crises to overcome (the hero on their journey must overcome something) or are the suburbs are a unique target because they are so common in the United States (over 50% of residents live there) and so reviled?