Explaining why Americans desire larger homes

Here are several possible explanations for why Americans want bigger houses:

But there’s no real “normal’’ when it comes to desired home size — except the persistent perception that size equates to prestige, said Dak Kopec, director of Design for Human Health at Boston Architectural College. “Throughout all cultures, bigger is better and associated with wealth and power.’’…

“It’s clear that the American dream of living in a big house on a large lot has not gone away,’’ said Ralph McLaughlin, Trulia’s chief economist…

One reason American homes are so big, Powell argued, is that we have more disposable income. “You’re not just buying a 2,000-square-foot house, you’re also going to fill it with a whole bunch of stuff,’’ she said. The larger house and its contents soon become your new baseline, she said, as the furniture, paintings, and lamps you buy blend into the background to become part of your environment. “And then you can only upsize from there if you choose to keep your possessions.’’…

Dunn speculates that a larger home could boost happiness if it reduces conflict. “If you have a house that enables you to get along well with your spouse, if each person has a little of their own space, that might reduce conflict,’’ she said, “but I suspect there are seriously diminishing returns on that.’’

With these four factors – the status of a larger house, the American Dream, more disposable income and more stuff, and finding more happiness – perhaps we could argue that it requires some effort for Americans to live in a smaller place. It is not impossible to do so and certain factors, such as living in an expensive metropolitan area like New York City or San Francisco, can override the cultural conditioning to have a larger house. But, the American inertia may just be to have a larger dwelling.

We could also add some additional factors leading to larger homes in the United States:

  1. Suburban sprawl leads to more room for larger homes.
  2. Americans privilege private spaces over public spaces.
  3. Over the decades, the government and other actors helped make it easier for more people to own homes.
  4. Americans don’t necessarily need the space but they like the flexibility that more room provides such as having a hobby room or having children, parents, and/or relatives live with them.

Camping in the McMansion of tents

This article sent by a friend is a few years old but still interesting: why settle for a small tent?

MCMANSIONS MAY BE going out of style, but when you’re camping, there’s something to be said for having an abode with outsize square footage. Yes, you can enjoy the great outdoors in a just-big-enough dwelling, but why compromise? Sleeping in the woods is much more comfortable when you have room to spare.

Just like McMansions are often criticized, I imagine some campers would criticize these tents for too much space. Plus, a large tent might be the market of the occasional camper rather than a hardcore camping enthusiast. But, as the article notes, not everyone wants to be packed like a sardine in a tent. And when the square footage of the “McMansion” is just over 100 square feet, half of what you might see in a typical tiny house (and without as much head space), a temporary structure of this size may not be too bad…

“Why we love to hate McMansions, but still buy them”

A rare article (in which I am quoted – you can find those parts yourself) that argues the McMansion is not going away. Here is the closing argument:

His clients aren’t interested in small houses or apartments, he says. “When they were immigrants, arriving, they saw these mansions, these houses, and that was the dream.”…

At Trotters Glen in Olney, Toll Brothers has sold 17 of the 58 planned homes. Stokes and her colleague, Sharon Nugent, say the development attracts affluent buyers in their 40s and 50s, with many drawn by Our Lady of Good Counsel, a nearby private school. Some add multi-generational suites or first-floor master bedrooms to accommodate elderly relatives or themselves in the future. “They’re building the dream home that they can stay in forever,” Nugent says.

Asked if they’d call the homes McMansions, Nugent and Stokes don’t bristle at the term and say their buyers probably wouldn’t either. “I don’t think they’d mind having it called a McMansion,” says Stokes.

“When you read [it in] an article, you think it’s derogatory,” Nugent says. “But in my mind, I chuckle and laugh, because we’re selling them. And they’re selling well.”

The one part that may be missing in this argument is finding more of the people outside of the coasts (California is represented by the fictional Bluth family, the Toll Brothers example comes from suburban Maryland) who like and purchase such homes. At the same time, each of these examples may even drive home the point further: even in the midst of suburban Maryland, there are people building and buying McMansions.

If the McMansion is indeed here to stay, perhaps a different question to ask is how big the American home might eventually be. Some of the rise in the median and average new home size could be blunted by a resurgent housing market where more small and medium sized homes are constructed (as opposed to the big ones that offer more profit). Or, what would change the minds of Americans so they wouldn’t desire a larger home (whether for a status symbol or to store all their stuff or to get the most bang for their buck or to have an investment for later)? Altering the emphasis on the big and comfortable single-family home is likely a long task.

Bonus: to go along with this article, see my recent series on defining the McMansion.
Trait #1: size
Trait #2: relative sizeTrait #3: architecture and design
Trait #4: a symbol

Defining a McMansion, Trait #1: Size

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

We’ll start with Trait #1: McMansions are big houses. As noted in the initial research paper, how big is up for update. I think it typically means bigger than normal though not large enough to be considered a home for truly wealthy people. In other words, it is a bigger than average house that more typical Americans (middle to upper middle class to upper class) might live in.

Interestingly, the average size of American homes has been on the rise in recent years even with a recovering housing market and increased scrutiny of larger homes. For new homes constructed in 2015 (see page 9 of the PDF file), the median size is 2,467 square feet and the average is 2,687 square feet. Both are records. There was a slight decline in new home size in 2009-2011 but since then, homes have been increasing in size.

Another way to look at this data is to examine what percent of new homes are over 3,000 square feet. Despite all the calls that McMansions are dead (or worse, making a comeback: see 2011, 2012, 2013, 2013, and 2014 posts on this), there are still new large homes in America. According to the same Census PDF with 2015 data (see page 1), we are at record percentages for the percent of new homes constructed that are 3,000-3,999 square feet (20%) and 4,000 square feet and larger (11%). So, while housing starts are still down overall compared to the early 2000s (currently less than half of some of those years), the homes that are being constructed tend to be larger. That growing tiny house movement (note my skepticism) is also not reflected in this data: with the data going back to 1999, we are at a low with only 8% of new homes having less than 1,400 square feet.

Perhaps the actual square footage of the McMansion is of less interest than the perception that it is large. (This gets into Trait #3 but is worth mentioning here.) It can be difficult from the street to estimate exactly the size of homes. However, it does seem easier to note that a ranch home has to be really large to be a McMansion while a two-story home with particular features in the front can appear larger.

One of the biggest ongoing criticisms of homes this large is that they are simply not necessary. What does one do with all that space? Doesn’t such space promote less family interaction? Doesn’t such a large home require more resources in construction as well as in maintenance? All three of these critiques could be true and yet it seems there are a good number of Americans who like having larger houses. It may be the old American adage of getting the most bang for your buck. It may be that they have a lot of stuff: having lots of stuff and having a big house go together. It may be that we like having additional rooms for specialized uses (man and woman caves, here we come). They may not use much of the house regularly but it could be comforting to have that space when you “need” it.

To conclude, McMansions are large homes though not as big as mansions. Yet, not all big homes acquire the moniker “McMansion.” The next traits highlight particular features of larger-than-average homes that increase the likelihood that they will be considered McMansions.

Small house movement spreads in ADUs

One way to encourage smaller homes and affordable housing is to allow Accessory Dwelling Units:

The cottage, which won a top design award last year from the American Institute of Architects, is technically called an “accessory dwelling unit,” or A.D.U. Portland has been ahead of the curve in allowing these smaller housing units, which are illegal in many cities and towns under current zoning rules…

In 2010, during the economic slump, when many building plans were being shelved, Portland presciently began to allow homeowners the right to develop accessory dwelling units on standard 5,000-square-foot residential lots for the first time. The city also eliminated development charges of up to $15,000 for new accessory dwelling units to spur homeowners to build.

More incentives followed: Homeowners could build and even rent out a unit that did not have off-street parking; any design not visible from the street could be built without input from neighbors; and new height limits — raised to 20 feet from 18 feet — encouraged two-story units, like Ms. Wilson’s…

Not surprisingly, the concentration of accessory dwelling units has been in central, higher-income areas close to amenities like transit and shops. “Part of this could be due to the fact that people with large amounts of equity can more easily secure financing,” Mr. Wood said. “The City of Portland and Portland State University will be working on a project to encourage and facilitate A.D.U. development in more diverse neighborhoods.”

It may be helpful to compare the ADUs to other alternatives for affordable, small housing.

  1. Would residents and communities prefer tiny houses on their own lots or in communities of tiny houses? The first could be expensive due to the cost of land, defeating the purpose of the smaller housing which is supposed to be cheaper. The second could be too much of a change for some places. ADUs make use of existing lots and aren’t necessarily grouped together.
  2. Would residents and communities prefer larger apartment buildings? On the plus side, you can build more units up and everyone knows that this is an apartment structure (with its higher densities and other unique features). On the negative side, apartment buildings can alter the character of a neighborhood, may require parking, and people often have stereotypes about who lives in apartments. The ADUs hide the higher densities better than apartments – back behind the main housing unit – but don’t provide as many units.

Given the resistance of many municipalities to denser housing, I imagine ADUs could be attractive as they don’t require the density or size of some alternatives. Additionally they can use existing land and generate income for local residents. Even given all that, I think it would take a lot for many cities to adopt this. There is a large need for affordable housing throughout the United States and many communities don’t seem to be moved to do anything; I’m not sure ADUs are attractive enough to tilt the scales.


New Australian homes shrinking in size

Not too long ago, new Australian homes rivaled those of the United States. Times have changed:

The country’s homes — some of the biggest in the world — reached peak size in 2009 at an ­average of 222sq m for newly built houses and apartments combined, according to research under­taken exclusively for The Weekend ­Australian.

But the global financial crisis ­put paid to that. The average new home now stands at 192sq m, making it smaller than in 2001, senior KPMG analyst Simon Kuestenmacher found in an analysis of 15 years of data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Market pressures, a shift in values to ‘less is more’ and spending on experiences rather than material goods, especially among Gen Y, has put Australia on a trajectory towards smaller homes,” Kuestenmacher noted…


Such trends regarding home sizes can fluctuate as economic conditions, local regulations, and cultural norms change. Now that the new home size has shrunk in Australia, will this continue for a long time? Hard to tell.

I also like the extra analysis that breaks down home size by location: there is not necessarily a singular trend in a country. While much analysis of home size in the United States relies on the single figure produced by the Census each year, I imagine there are some disparate trends across cities and regions in the U.S.

How much of their home do residents use?

An op-ed opposing Los Angeles mansionization suggests owners of large homes don’t regularly use all that space:

In “Life at Home in the 21st Century,” UCLA researchers tracked 32 middle-class Angelenos, trying to measure and analyze how we live today. One family in particular they followed intimately, tracking how they moved around the house during the mornings, evenings, and weekends — when they were all home. The results were amazing: the family huddled around the kitchen and family room nearly all the time, leaving the living room, porch, and more than 50% of the rest of the first floor communal spaces almost entirely empty. The habit of gathering around the kitchen to eat, or huddling in front of the TV to watch, hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, but the average home size has — from 983 square feet in 1950 to more than 2,660 square feet today. Meanwhile, the average family size has shrunk and so has the average number of people living under one roof, from 3.3 in 1960 to 2.54 today.

See more about the book here. While the book appears to detail the heights of American consumerism (see this interview with one of the authors), it is interesting to consider how often rooms in a house are used. Are they really like office or store parking lots that tend to get used during certain work hours each day and then sit empty for more than half the day? Bedrooms operate that way during sleeping hours while gathering spaces – kitchens and family rooms – attract users in the evenings. Those hobby or storage rooms that are popular now – ranging from the man cave to a large closets – rarely see human activity. Could homes be made significantly smaller if the uses were combined or square footage was changed to reflect usage patterns? Or, should homes be built in a hub and spoke model around these key social spaces? On the other hand, American homes seem to privilege maintaining private spaces even if they aren’t used very much. The formal living room may be out but some homeowners seem to want private retreats (at least on TV, particularly in their bathrooms).

All of this gets back to you what homes are for in the first place. From decades ago to today, American homes often represent an escape from the outside world. A place to escape to with your family. A space where outsiders and the government cannot tread. Making such homes more communal is an interesting challenge when the homeowners need to be protected from forces outside the home.