The case of Graceland: McMansion or not?

The term McMansion can sometimes be applied retroactively to eras where the moniker did not exist. For example, a description of Graceland in Memphis uses the term:

Graceland and the nearby newly opened tourist centre – clumsily titled Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland – gets fans close to the King, but don’t dare touch anything. In bricks and mortar, the Georgian-inspired mansion is not really that big. These days, it’s more McMansion in scale than, well, a proper mansion.

According to Wikipedia, Graceland is over 17,000 square feet. The original part of the home was built in 1939 and only later did development encompass the large property (still over 13 acres).

This is still a very big house, even by today’s terms. I tend to apply the term McMansion when the size of the home is roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Even then, homes of this size may not meet other traits of McMansions such as being too big for their lot (not a problem with Graceland), architecturally garish or poor quality (not a problem with Graceland), and associated with sprawl and luxury (maybe a bit applicable here). Perhaps Graceland might be McMansion in an interior related to pop culture and kitsch – but that is more likely a function of the home once belonging to a music superstar than it being a typical suburban McMansion.

Today, Graceland is still a mansion. Is it really that different than the large homes of entertainment stars and celebrities today?

The most frequent homeowner regret about their home is not purchasing a bigger one

A good number of Americans regret features of the homes they purchase:

More than half of all buyers have regrets about their purchase of a home, Trulia reports, and the No. 1 mistake buyers feel like they made is choosing the wrong size. Forty-two percent of those polled by the real estate site say that they picked a place to live that was either too large (9 percent) or too small (33 percent).

Almost the exact same number of renters, 41 percent, “wish they had bought instead.”

Twenty-six percent of buyers also wish they had done either less or more remodeling.

What might explain these regrets?

Buying a house is often the biggest purchase a person will ever make, so it’s natural that many experience some buyer’s remorse…

Home size has been a common gripe over the years, especially as housing gets more expensive and people have to settle for smaller spaces, said David Weidner, managing editor for Trulia’s housing economics research team.

Or are Americans so embedded within consumerism that they are always wishing for more? At the same time, expressing regrets about a major purchase doesn’t necessarily mean that people would have done it differently. If I like my home but wish the yard had more space, am I dissatisfied with owning my home? Not necessarily.

It is too bad we don’t get more information about how much bigger homeowners wish their home would be. Perhaps the average homeowner just wants another room to two to handle all their stuff as opposed to all Americans wishing to live in giant McMansions.

 

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.)

What is the punishment for building a 30,000 square foot home without permission?

A developer in Los Angeles is facing some consequences for building a large home:

Hadid and the city attorney’s office met in private Thursday morning, after which Hadid’s attorneys said their client is close to a guilty plea for violating the city building code by building a 30,000-square-foot spec home at 901 Strada Vecchia, the Courier reported.

The real estate mogul — best known from appearances on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and as the father of supermodel Gigi Hadid — will still face a mix of public service and fines, as well as a potential ban from building in L.A., according to the Courier.

Hadid’s attorneys argue that if sentencing could be delayed, he could bring the property into compliance so any potential criminal conviction would be erased…

The real estate mogul was charged in late 2015 with building a spec mansion without a permit, illegally using land, and failing to comply with orders from the L.A. Department of Building and Safety to halt construction. Angry neighbors called the project “starship enterprise.”

I’m not sure what you would do to someone who constructs such a home. Jail them?

I know the burden is on the owner here but I wonder why the city didn’t step in at some point during the process. Most locales have people checking permits and codes along the way. And if the home was so large and attracting the attention of neighbors, why wasn’t this stopped?

Finally, the headline for this story calls this home a McMansion. The architecture may lend itself to this; the included picture suggests the exterior is designed to impress and the neighbors certainly had an interesting moniker for the home. Yet, it is a home with 30,000 square feet. It would be one thing to quickly construct a 3,000 square foot home but 30,000 square feet is on a whole level up.

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