Live the American Dream in a $180k, 375 square foot tiny home

Tiny houses could provide needed cheap housing and upgraded models might also appeal to people. Here is an example of a higher-end model:

https://www.yahoo.com/news/180-000-tiny-home-outfitted-173504352.html

David Latimer of New Frontier Design is creating tiny homes that are more luxurious and more expensive than most you’d find on the market today. His most recent model, the Escher, starts at $180,000 and is designed to fit a family of six full time. Latimer calls this “the future family home.”…

The Escher is unlike most tiny homes, nearing $200,000 and including high-end features. But Latimer said that doesn’t make this model any less of a tiny house.

“Minimalism means different things for different people,” Latimer said. “The bottom line is that downsizing is a tremendous life adjustment and sacrifice for anybody. This tiny house is still a minimalistic lifestyle. It’s still a tiny home.”…

“I believe micro-housing is going to be a substantial part of the future of residential housing,” Latimer said. “Millenials and Gen Z are going to live this way. I would bet my life on this. Micro housing will allow people to live out the American dream.”

I am not surprised there is a perceived market for more expensive tiny houses. At a basic level, perhaps this is just selling the same products to different parts of the market: some people want to pay less for a tiny house, others will pay more. Indeed, from what I can gather about who moves into or at least talks publicly about moving into tiny houses, it looks like there are some educated people with some resources who want tiny houses with upgrades.

More broadly, I am not sure how a more expensive house fits into “the tiny house movement.” Downsizing and having a cheaper home are often connected to anti-consumerist motives and behavior. Some people make the choice to acquire a tiny house in order to move away from having too many items or fixating on a large home or being so financially committed. Does a luxury tiny house try to have it both ways?

If this kind of tiny house – small but still nearly $200,000 – is going to become part of the American Dream, the definition of the American Dream may need to change. For decades now, the American Dream involves owning a single-family home, probably in the suburbs. The Escher could indeed technically fulfill this – provide a single-family home in the suburbs – but it is very different in substance. If anything motivates people to make this the embodiment of the American Dream, it may be financial realities rather than aspirations for a simpler, downsized American Dream. In other words, expensive housing markets and debt may push people toward more luxurious tiny homes rather than a true desire to ditch the big showy house for a high-status small house.

Online real estate shift during COVID-19 reinforces the private nature of American homes

The ways in which COVID-19 has pushed more real estate activity online – virtual tours, making offers without physically seeing a home – doubles down on the private dimensions of residences in the United States. Here is my argument:

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

Already, Americans tend to see their homes as castles, refuges from the outside world, spaces where they can do what they want, settings in which they tend to their immediate family and consume a lot of media, financial investments for their future. Add this to suburbs devoted to homeownership and driving and the home is truly a private place.

The downside is this: there is often limited community and civic engagement. Neighbors get along by pleasantly or passively leaving each other alone. Private spaces are very distinct from public spaces and public spaces where a true diversity of people might actually mix, whether a shopping mall or a library, are relatively rare. Trust in institutions is low and participation in community groups has declined.

Putting homes for sale on the Internet just further reduces the community or neighborhood element of a residence. If you look at enough real estate pictures, you see some patterns: lots of interior shots but limited images of how the residence interacts with surrounding spaces or what may be just down the street. For example, you may get a shot of a backyard but it is often facing the rear of the house, not out into the neighborhood. Or, you might get a pleasant image of the downtown of a community or a local park or a common room within an apartment building without much sense of how those spaces are used.

This is similar to how HGTV often shows homes. There may be sweeping shots of a neighborhood or location but the focus is always on the single housing unit. The interior and its features are the focus. The neighborhood or surroundings do not matter unless it has to do with proximity to work or family or to note the character of surrounding buildings (which is often connected to property values and the perceived niceness of the location).

There are some tools that could help potential homebuyers check out the neighborhood and community. A virtual house tour could be followed by a Google Street View drive through the nearby blocks. Instead of just relying on walkability and school scores on real estate websites, a potential buyer could go to local websites or message boards to try to get a sense of community life. Yet, any of these Internet attempts pale to talking to people in the community and experiencing the surrounding area. People should make some efforts to get to know their community before they consider moving there.

Seeing homes and residences as commodities that can be evaluated solely through the Internet downplays civic life or at least pushes it into the background. Divorcing a home from its surroundings can be done but it is impoverishing in the long run for property owners and communities. When we emerge from a COVID-19 pandemic, I hope the online aspect of real estate does not hamper efforts to rebuild community and social life when such work is sorely needed.

Questions a sociologist asks when seeing changes in the housing stock in their community

I try to pay attention to housing changes in the suburban community in which I live. Here are some questions I ask as I observe both existing and new homes:

  1. What existed here before this current residence?
  2. What motivated the property owners to tear down the existing home and build these homes (and in these particular styles)?
  3. How do existing and new homes interact with their surroundings?
  4. What does the inside of the home look and feel like? The outside provides some clues but interiors can be quite different from house to house.
  5. What happened at the community level (decisions, regulations, proposals, discussions, etc.) for these homes to exist in this form?
  6. In the long run, will these changes be viewed positively in the community or negatively?
  7. Who are the people who live in these homes (who is this housing for)? Are they the same or different kinds of people who are in the community?

We can measure features of old and new homes and look at the aggregate data. For example, we could try to look at the “average” home largely based on standardized traits. These figures are helpful but they also leave out other important traits of homes: what is their character? How are they experienced by the owners and the neighborhood and how do they shape social actors? How do they contribute to community life? What do they say about the priorities of the occupants and the community?

In sum, homes are not just part of the housing stock. Each house has the potential to shape and be shaped by people who interact with its material and symbolic presence. And when the housing changes, it can alter existing understandings.

Trying to define the “average American home”

One writer/realtor describes the features of today’s typical American home:

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

Homebuyers now realize that although space is important, it’s not necessarily the most important feature to have. To have enough space to be comfortable, today’s average American home measures about 2,400 square feet. This is definitely up from the 1973 average of about 1,500 square feet for a single-family home, but it’s down quite a bit from the 4,000-plus-square-foot McMansion…

People like finished basements, a home office, a large master bedroom, a big (we’re talking the size of a child’s bedroom), customized walk-in closet with organizer features, and a tricked-out ensuite master bathroom — think of one with spa-like amenities, such as a linen closet, a separate shower stall and tub, a double vanity, and a private toilet room…

Even when you adjust for inflation, you’ll find today’s median home price has increased 900% from 1973, but incomes have increased only 600%. Americans have become used to spending more of their paychecks to get the American dream of homeownership…

“Live, work, play” became the motto of the day as people grew weary of being car-dependent. Being able to walk to shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment has become just as important as the home itself to many homebuyers.

This description appears to draw off two sources of data: Census data that regularly provides numbers on square footage, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, and prices (among other things) as well as real estate knowledge of recent trends.

Whether this gets us to what “the average American home of 2020 looks like” is a tricky question. At first glance, several things seem to be missing from the description. What does this typical home look like? It is somewhere between more traditional pre-World War II styles, postwar styles like ranches and split-levels, and more recent options like McMansions? How old is this typical home? While newer homes and features receive a lot of attention, many homes are at least a few decades old. And while the factor of the neighborhood is mentioned, where are people buying homes and then what is happening to these homes in terms of renovations and alterations?

Much of this also depends on local context. Given regional architecture plus the variation in housing markets as well as communities, finding the modal American house might just be near impossible. Perhaps there could be a set of typical American homes that could encompass some of the common variation.

Recent market interest in large homes

With COVID-19, large homes have been moving on the real estate market:

purple flowers and white concrete building

Photo by Lina Kivaka on Pexels.com

Preferences vary by price range and region, but buyers in every market are eyeing extra space. “I would say [buyers are looking at] a 20% to 30% increase in size, whether in the number of bedrooms or square footage,” said Stephanie Anton, who was until recently the president Luxury Portfolio International. [She was interviewed for this story before she announced on June 23 she was leaving her post]. “It’s a jump-up a category or two across the board.”

Versions of this trend are playing out in markets all over the U.S., making it an opportune moment for sellers looking to unload extra acreage, and a time for interested buyers to move quickly…

Whatever the terminology, extra-large properties that might have languished on the market in recent years are seeing a sudden spike in interest, while owners who had previously considered downsizing are suddenly deciding to stay put…

Now that buyers are looking at the long haul of multiple generations working, studying, exercising, and living under one roof, demands for space have expanded accordingly.

On one hand, this is not surprising. This lines up with numerous other media reports that people are searching out suburban properties in which they can spread out inside and outside.

On the other hand, there are several interesting features of these patterns:

  1. The article notes that buyers of these large properties are not interested in McMansions or homes that might be considered McMansions. The negative nature of the term is clearly known. Yet, are these recently hot properties McMansions? I would guess at least a few might be. And once COVID-19 passes, will the appearance of these purchased properties become an issue?
  2. The multiple articles I have read on this trend provide few numbers. There is confirmation from local real estate experts in multiple markets but no hard numbers of how many people are purchasing large suburban houses. At the least, there are not a whole lot of people who can do this, particularly in more expensive markets. Moving from Manhattan to an outer suburb will get you a bigger property but not as much as moving out to a cheaper region.

Trying to figure out whether tiny houses are actually affordable

I ran across a story of a self-sustaining time home made in Australia and retailing for roughly $61,000:

In total, this Urban Tiny home on wheels is 8.2 feet wide, 14.1 feet tall, and 24.3 feet long, including its drawbar. The drawbar, which is 4.6 feet long, allows the 7,363-pound tiny home to be towed by several vehicle types, including pickup trucks and SUVs…

The home’s self sufficiency title comes from its power systems, which includes solar panels, a battery system, and a 240-volt inverter…

The inside of the home looks no different than a typical loft apartment…

The bathroom and kitchen source its water from the drinking and grey water tanks. But for those who want a more consistent stream of water and power, there are water and generator power connection points in the tiny home.

The home looks appealing and the built-in electricity and water units provide more flexibility and sustainability. But, here is why I wonder if such houses could truly be affordable housing:

1. The price on one unit is cheaper than most single-family homes in the United States. This does not necessarily mean it is affordable. It is almost double the cost of the average new car in the United States. Would lenders be willing to extend longer mortgages for these small housing units?

2. The owner of the tiny house still needs land. This would require buying a lot, renting a lot, or finding a free lot. The first two options could add significant costs while the third requires a personal connection.

3. It is unclear what the operating costs are for tiny houses: what does maintenance cost? How much are utilities? How long do these units last? What is their resale value after five or ten years?

4. Moving the unit is an attractive option (particularly given #2). But, this requires renting or owning a large enough vehicle to tow the unit.

5. This is not a large unit at roughly 200-250 square feet (including the loft space). In terms of price per square foot, this is not necessarily cheap (particularly if the costs for #2 are added in). If people have a lot of stuff, would they need to rent a storage unit or have a storage building/garage on their property? There is not a lot of private space in these units; would this require living near a community that provides pleasant public and private spaces (think coffeeshops, libraries, parks, etc.) and would this drive up the price of parking the unit?

Putting this all together, I’m not sure this is within the reach of many people (perhaps it is more in the ballpark for a retreat or second home for people with more resources).

The difficulties for public institutions and spaces after COVID-19

Reopening and repopulating public spaces during and after COVID-19 might provide difficult:

Yet can you reopen a society — particularly a republic built on openness and public interaction — without its physical institutions at full capacity, without public spaces available for congregation?…

Something else unites these places. In each, the woman on the next bench, the man ahead in the checkout line, the family down the pew are suddenly potential vectors — or potential victims. So we’re assessing the public realm in the way we assess a salad bar when we walk into a restaurant…

“Democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world,” John R. Parkinson writes in “Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance.”

“How do you define the ‘public realm’ when an enormous percentage of the American public spends the majority of its day in its pajamas?” Stilgoe says.

This piece raises great questions for a COVID-19 world. The emphasis on how architecture and design shapes public behavior as well as how others in those spaces can be trusted or not is right on. At the same time, there are several elements I would add to this analysis:

1. The definitions of “institution” and “spaces” are pretty broad. Some of the listed locations, like shopping malls, colleges, and grocery stores, are not public spaces. They are owned by private groups that can and do dictate how the space can be used. Some of the other locations, like parks and squares, are public spaces. Government buildings are generally more open to all. Americans privilege private space even though we need some of the private spaces – grocery stores, workplaces – to survive. But, the same rules or expectations do not apply in each of these spaces. We saw this in the Occupy Wall Street protests where gatherings in what looked like public spaces could be ended when they spaces were actually owned by private groups or the government pushed people out. We actually do not have that many public spaces where people regularly gather; many of our “public spaces” are actually privately owned and this matters. The private public spaces require both private groups and the public to cooperate – and they may not always do so.

2. Even before COVID-19, it is not clear that many Americans value public spaces or use them regularly. As noted in #1, Americans like their private spaces. Homes may be less attractive when you are trapped in them but we have a society where success is owning your own suburban single-family home. Add to this declining trust in numerous institutions and it may be hard to make the case that we should put more resources and effort into creating and maintaining public spaces.

3. More broadly, many would argue a thriving society and democracy depends on regular interaction between people. And face-to-face interaction provides benefits that online communication does not regarding communicating clearly and building relationships. Yet, again, this has been on a decline for a while now. Twitter is not a good approximation of public conversation nor a good medium (at least as currently constructed or experienced) for public conversation. Telecommuting may provide efficiencies and allow people more private lives but something will be lost. See my earlier thoughts on sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People where he takes up these issues (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four).

The factors leading to the states with the largest homes

New American single-family homes are the largest in the world. Here is how they rank in size by state, starting with the largest:

Utah has the highest average home size in the United States, at 2,305 square feet. Utah also boasts a whopping median of four bedrooms for the typical real estate listing. Despite the impressive average home size, the median home price in the state is a reasonable $219,900…

Near the top of the crop, Colorado has an average house size of 2,126 square feet, among the largest in the nation. From 1910 to 2020, the size of the average home in Colorado grew 67 percent. Several factors have contributed to the trend toward bigger homes across the nation, the foremost of which may be 20th century government policies that fueled the growth of suburbs…

The average home size in Wyoming is 2,052 square feet, the third largest average in the nation. The ample home sizes may well have something to do with the fact that Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, which gives people plenty of room to spread out. As in most states, however, the median number of bedrooms is three…

The median size for homes within Bozeman city limits is about 1,790 square feet, just a bit over the national average, and a typical home includes three bedrooms and 2.5 baths. The statewide average, however, is much larger, reaching 2,040 square feet, which means Montana comes in fourth in home size among U.S. states. The median price for a Montana home is around $250,000.

Based on the rankings here and the states at the top, here are factors that likely influence home size across states:

1. The era of development. States in the West and Sunbelt have more recent development compared to the Northeast and Midwest.

2. Prices in local housing markets. People can build and buy bigger homes when prices are lower.

3. The size of land allows for bigger houses. Places with more open land for development have an edge compared to regions and communities that are already built up.

4. A local ethos that emphasizes home and lot size as opposed to other desirable traits (living in a denser neighborhood, access to mass transit and other amenities, etc.). This could come through buying preferences and local regulations.

Not surprisingly, Hawaii has the smallest homes. But, there are a bunch of states in the middle. Additionally, as is noted in the description for each state, the average home size can vary widely between contexts within states.

Recommended read: A Field Guide to American Houses

I was sad to read about the recent passing of Virginia Savage McAlester. I highly recommend the book A Field Guide to American Houses that occupied much of her attention.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”…

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods…

McAlester set about creating such a survey. The book that emerged from her efforts is a hefty tome that has been referred to as “The Bible,” by preservationists. The Field Guide is more than a catalog of home styles and types. To write it, McAlester said she had to learn a whole new architectural vocabulary, in part because the common features of so many American homes didn’t rise into the architecture lexicon at Harvard…

For example, in a 2014 update to the Field Guide, she coined two new phrases to describe two emerging architectural styles: “21st century modern” for the sleek, angular, uncluttered structures that dominate the pages of contemporary shelter magazines; and “millennium mansions” for the thrown-up ex-urban behemoths more commonly derided as “McMansions.” For McAlester, it was important to understand the highs and lows of design because both architectural visions shape our experience and conception of American communities.

I have used this book both in scholarly projects and read it for enjoyment. I have it on the shelf in my office and occasionally will pull it down to reference some feature of homes or to look through the numerous examples McAlester provided.

A few additional thoughts on the text:

  1. The book highlights both the broad categories of homes as well as the numerous variations within each type. Based on the distinctive features of each style which the book clearly points out, you can usually easily find the broad category a home fits into. At the same time, you can also revel in the many types within each category.
  2. The numerous photographs in each style are very helpful. McAlester collected photographs from numerous locations throughout the United States. For example, the section on “millennium mansions” includes multiple photographs from Naperville, Illinois.
  3. I also appreciate the sections of the book about particular features of homes, ranging from roofs to windows to how homes are structurally supported. This book is not just about the external appearance; there are things to be learned about houses are put together.

Designing homes to be “everything all at once” for times when everyone is home all the time

Americans generally like private single-family homes but are the homes Americans have now designed well for confinement and sheltering in place?

Homes, whatever their size or their layout, are constructed to be part of an ecosystem. They make assumptions about the way their eventual residents will interact with the affordances, and the economies, of the outside world. They assume, generally speaking, that people will commute to work (hence, in suburbs and rural areas, the abundance of driveways and garages). They assume that people will live much of their life outside the home. And they assume that the home’s residents will, as a consequence, have access to goods produced elsewhere: groceries, games, cleaning supplies. (American refrigerators are the size they are because their designers made informed bets about how often their owners would visit a grocery store.)

Apartments in cities make similar assumptions, but in reverse: They assume that the city itself is a meaningful extension of whatever square footage a dwelling might offer. They treat the home as what it often will be, for the resident: one place among many in the rhythms of a day…

Neither scenario accounts for what many Americans are experiencing right now: home as the only place. Home as the everything. The confinement can pose, for some, a direct danger. Jacoba Urist, writing about the “tiny apartment” trend in 2013, noted that large amounts of time spent in enclosed spaces, particularly if those spaces have several occupants, can be a source of stress—especially for kids. A child-protective-services worker recently sent ProPublica a list of worries she has about the people in her care: “that my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.” Gwyn Kaitis, the policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted in the same piece that “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.”…

“In general, it’s wonderful,” Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”

There is a lot to think through here. A few thoughts on what this might mean for homes in the future:

  1. I have seen the suggestion from a few places that more Americans will seek out homes in the future that have dedicated office spaces at home. Without a room that can be closed off and relatively quiet, it can be hard to work from home when everyone else is also home.
  2. Will this push more Americans to seek out more square footage in their dwellings? The argument can go like this: you never know when you might need that extra space (such as during a pandemic). An extra room or two could be converted to office space or classroom space or food/toilet paper storage when residents need to stock up. Additionally, does this experience limit how many people will be willing to bet on a tiny house?
  3. A push toward further integration of technology into houses. If people are working from home and spending all of their time there, imagine dwellings with screens and speakers in every space, effective wi-fi everywhere, and both ample space for sitting and standing (with the need to stand and work to vary it up and move around). Carrying a laptop, a tablet, or a phone around to every interior space may not cut it.
  4. Earlier evidence suggested people congregate around the kitchen while other parts of the house go relatively unused. The kitchen might still be a gathering space but perhaps more attention and innovation will come to other spaces that in earlier times would be relatively ignored. When a bedroom has to serve more purposes, perhaps this means there will be different furniture or amenities there.