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.