Back to the SUV and McMansion comparisons

With a stronger economy, it may be time now again to link McMansions and SUVs. Here is one review of “gargantuan SUVs” or “extra-large luxury SUVs”:

But when you drive one like the new 2018 Lincoln Navigator (starting at $73,250), you start to understand why these whales of the highway are a rare yet growing subgenome of the SUV originally created in the heady days of the late ’90s. (Sales were up 5 percent in 2017.) They have become less McMansion, less family trucksters gussied up in questionable leather and wood veneers, and more bespoke luxury condo—the mobile living room for sophisticates with a growing brood that they always tried to be.

Space is a luxury, sure. But the stretch-your-legs-out room and cushy rear-seat experience that would normally require a first-class Emirates ticket? That’s a rare kind of decadence on the road that the Navigator handles with surprising grace. The interior is a treat for grown-ups (copious soundproofing, massage seats) and their kids (it can take up to ten WiFi connections).

Three quick thoughts:

  1. There is still an emphasis on space in these comparisons. SUVs and McMansions both provide significant amounts of room compared to the typical vehicle or home.
  2. Both are luxury goods that are a step up from the normal experience. Yet, the line that these newer SUVs are less McMansion and more luxury condo suggests their opulence is more acceptable. Indeed, it is okay to spend a lot of money for a flashy urban condo while the suburban McMansion is still looked down upon.
  3. Are we sure that the SUV and McMansion are the mass consumer goods that mark this era (roughly late 1990s to now) of American life? To critics, they represent wasted resources as well as American conspicuous consumption. The cell phone becomes popular over this time period but not until the smartphone of the late 2000s does it reach its peak.

I will keep looking for the comparisons of SUVs and McMansions. At the least, they suggest the economy is back to the point where more Americans are making or considering these purchases.

Millennials seek suburban homes and SUVs

Recent data shows several consumption patterns among Millennials:

Generationally speaking, the stereotype of millennials as urbanites falls flat when it comes to homeownership. The Zillow 2016 Consumer Housing Trends Report found that 47 percent of millennial homeowners live in the suburbs, with 33 percent settling in an urban setting and 20 percent opting for a rural area.

Millennial homebuyers do wait longer to buy a first home than did previous generations. But they are skipping the traditional “starter home” and buying larger homes that were previously considered the norm for “move up” buyers…

Erich Merkle, an economist with Ford, says that as millennials cross the threshold into family life, they’re buying large SUVs.

“We expect them to carry on as they age with three-row SUVs and likely go larger simply because they need the space to accommodate children that are now teenagers or preteenagers,” he said.

That combination so emblematic of 2000s consumption – the suburban big home (a McMansion?) and SUV – may be back. On one hand, perhaps this is what millennials are used to or they think they should aspire to. On the other side, consuming these objects can draw criticism. Did Americans learn anything (housing bubble, reliance on cheap oil)? Do they understand the consequences of these purchases (a commitment to sprawl and consuming more than they need)? How could they make such uncool choices (compared to dwellings in hot urban neighborhoods or acquiring cooler vehicles)?

Perhaps this suburban driving culture will continue for a long time…

Academics summing up the evils of suburbia

In looking at the new book Global Suburbs: Urban Sprawl from the Rio Grande to Rio de Janeiro, I was struck by the opening statement by the series editor, sociologist Sharon Zukin. Here is her opening (page ix):

In Global Suburbs: From the Rio Grande to Rio de Janeiro, Lawrence Herzog exposes the dystopian underside of the suburban American dream. A house of one’s own, on a little plot of land, is no longer a place of domestic comfort, spiritual renewal, and communion with the green space and clear air of nature. Instead, the mass suburban habitat that Americans pioneered features oversized McMansions stuffed with giant TVs and electronic gadgets, to which their owners commute in gas-guzzling SUVs, enduring stressful journeys on traffic-clogged roads, leaving neither space nor time for pleasure.

This human habitat, Herzog warns, is neither a happy nor a healthy place. It is, instead, a treadmill of over-consumption that burdens our bodies, our spirits, and the natural environment. Obesity, anxiety, toxic air: how can we think this is a good life?

Most important, the suburban dream that Herzog describes now spreads throughout North and South America…Every metropolitan area in the Western hemisphere bears a tragic cost: Overbuilding reduces the water supply, destroys the trees and insects on which all life depends, and creates an eco-disaster.

Naming these issues can be important as many suburban residents don’t consider the implications of consumption, their impact on the surrounding ecology (particularly if the rest of the world consumed at similar levels), and whether such a suburban life truly offers the be-all-end-all of existence. Yet, this description tends toward the over-the-top suburban critique that has been leveled for decades. Here we have another citing of McMansions and SUVs together – key symbols of excessive consumption – even though many suburbanites have neither. How anxious and stressed are these suburbanites – if the milieu is so toxic, why did they keep moving there for decades? (They are either dupes tricked by someone or have misplaced priorities.) Was there once a golden age of suburbs that wasn’t about over-consumption and truly was about “domestic comfort, spiritual renewal, and communion with the green space and clear air of nature”? (There is evidence of this but it tended to be limited to the wealthy, provided limited opportunities for women, and also had a view of a certain kind of nature.)

On to the rest of the book…

Gas prices down? Some SUVs still big? Back to connecting McMansions and SUVs

Here is a review of the 2015 Chevy Suburban that clearly ties the large SUV with McMansions. The headline? “Suburban: McMansion on Wheels.”

2015 Chevrolet Suburban 4WD ½ Ton LTZ: The all-new King of the Road.

Price: $72,835 as tested ($64,700 base).

Marketer’s pitch: “Built for everything and everyone.”

Conventional wisdom: A McMansion on wheels.

Reality: Ginormous on the outside. But the inside? Debatable…

The big fella: This is it, the beast, the mother (or father; the Suburban is all masculinity) of all family vehicles. With seating for up to nine and plenty of room for storage, they don’t offer more space than the Suburban, right?…
In the end: Sorry, Suburban lovers and minivan haters. Unless you’re towing or foraging through the muddy hills of the Dark Forest – or if you want something that lots of people will notice – a Sienna is a more versatile people mover. Still, the caché of the Suburban will keep this monster popular for years to come, I’m certain.

The main emphasis in this review is on the size of the vehicle: quite large. The reviewer compares this vehicle several times to his family’s Sienna which also offers a lot of cargo space but has some other features (even if the minivan is not as cool, it less like a “box truck” and has more flexibility with the middle seats). I have to wonder how much the recent story that SUVs have regained some popularity with decreasing gas prices influenced the connection here to McMansions. SUVs are large, McMansions are large – why not connect these two common items of large size as well as symbols of excessive consumption? The headline illustrates a journalistic shorthand: big consumer items are comparable to super-size houses.

Interestingly, yearly sales of the Suburban fluctuated quite a bit in the last 15 years. Sales peaked just over 150,000 in 2001-2002 but then bottomed out at 41,055 in 2009 before rising slightly to 51,260 in 2013.

Gas prices go down, SUVs and Hummers return. Could the same idea hold for McMansions?

SUV sales have picked up in recent months as gas prices dropped across the United States:

Over the last month, auto analysts say, consumers have shown a fresh interest in the kind of SUVs — Hummers, Lincoln Navigators, Ford Explorers — that typified America’s bigger-is-better mindset of twenty years ago. The new mindset among some car buyers is one of the most unexpected consequences of a domestic oil boom that has helped cause global crude prices to plummet in recent months, with the cost of a gallon of gas now below $3.

As oil prices hit a three-year low, Americans are starting to see price changes that could ultimately influence everything from their grocery shopping to their heating bills to their travel. The lower prices — should they be sustained, as expected, for the next few months — have the potential to nudge the U.S. further away from its dreary post-recession mindset, leaving instead a nation with more affordable air and road transportation options, higher consumer confidence, and yes, a few more gas guzzlers driving around…

One measure is the share of “trucks” — including pick-ups, SUVs and crossovers — among total vehicles sold. Before the financial crisis, trucks almost always outsold cars, in some months grabbing as much as 59 percent of the market. Post-recession, the industry has flip-flopped; cars are more popular.

But not in recent months. In September, the truck market share was 53.5 percent. In October, it was 53.6. That is the best sustained two-month stretch since 2005.

As for those Hummers? said interest in Hummer H1s on its site rose 11 percent last month, making it the fastest-growing older model among all vehicles.

As gas prices drop, Americans are returning to some of their consumption patterns from the late 1990s and early 2000s when the economy was doing better. Even though they have seen higher gas prices (which could return soon), gone through a great recession, and government regulations encourage more MPGs across all vehicles in the coming years, some Americans want bigger vehicles that require more gas.

This is interesting in itself but I wonder if the same general concept could apply to McMansions. One argument about reducing purchases of SUVs and McMansions, often paired symbols of excessive consumption, is that Americans needed to be shocked by high gas prices and hard economic times before they would change their behavior. Yet, the recent data about gas prices suggests Americans might just return to their spending patterns once things look better. (And, with the gas prices, it is not like they are likely returning to the $1.20-$2.00 range of not that long ago.) Might the same apply to McMansions? Even with all the fanfare about smaller homes, more reasonable debt loads (whether through mortgages or car loans), and critiques of the kind of sprawling communities in which communities are often built, will Americans return to McMansions once the economy picks up?

I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised. Even during the recession, people with money continued to purchase and build large homes. Homes do require a larger financial commitment than SUVs but they also are highly symbolic and linked to suburbs, all dealing with the American Dream. Perhaps the best hope for fighting these consumerist impulses is pervasive generational shifts, particularly kids, teenagers, and young adults who don’t want cars and suburban houses in the same way over time.

Uptick in SUV/light truck sales alongside increase in big houses

Following up on a supposed McMansion comeback, Jordan Weissmann notes that SUV sales have also increased:

And how about those gas guzzlers? They’re on the rebound too. More than 51 percent of new autos sold today are light trucks, a category which includes SUVs. That’s right where we were in the Spring of 2007, though below the all-time peak of around 6 percent.


Now some caveats. The light truck category also includes increasingly popular crossover vehicles, which share some of the space and styling of SUVs, but are more fuel efficient. So the big cars being bought today aren’t quite the same as the big cars that were being bought yesterday. Meanwhile, mortgage credit is hard to come by, and perhaps as a result, the average new home buyer is a bit richer than before the crash, according to the NAHB’s data. That might partly explain our growing abodes, since wealthier families tend to buy larger homes. And as recession-scarred Millennials start entering the home market, there’s a chance they’ll start opting for smaller houses, as some real estate experts believe they will.

But sometimes it just feels like we never learn.

This builds on one of the most common critiques of McMansions: they are part of a package deal of excessive consumption that includes SUVs, bulk purchases at big box stores, and oversized food portions. There is little doubt that Americans consume a lot, particularly in comparison to many other nations, but it is not just about having a lot. This critique also is about being green and asking whether these levels of consumption can continue or could be extended to all that many other humans before resources run out. And, it often seems that there is a moral argument underlying this critique: should people have this size house and this size vehicle? This is why I think it would get really interesting if McMansions could be much greener (sustainable materials, low energy usage, less reliant on automobiles and built in denser areas) and SUVs could be more fuel efficient (is 40 mpg doable?).

Microsoft promo videos feature a preponderence of McMansions?

In the middle of a “Xbox music preview,” Paul Thurrot makes an interesting observation about the homes shown in Microsoft promotional videos:

A promotional video then ensued. It was loud and peppy and featured the same overly-white, McMansion-living trendy families that always seem to exist in Microsoft’s promo videos since this is the only life that Microsoft employees in Redmond area understand. But it reveals a few interesting clues about how the Zune Music service will be changing and evolving as it becomes Xbox Music…

I don’t know how accurate this observation is as I don’t regularly watch tech industry promo videos. However, let’s assume it is true. Perhaps McMansion owners are more likely to purchase Microsoft products so Microsoft is simply portraying its target demographic. Perhaps Microsoft critics would love to tie Microsoft to McMansions and put together ideas that Microsoft simply mass produces products that don’t work well in the long run.

What are particular companies or perhaps products that would work well in advertisements with McMansions? A few ideas:

1. McDonald’s. An easy connection: mass production, supersizing, quantity over quality. Both have their enthusiastic detractors. Both seem to continue on anyhow (see this recent piece about a recent jump in sales of McMansions).

2. SUVs. These are commonly put together as symbols of excess and environmental waste. A Hummer would work well here. But what about a Honda CR-V or a Toyota Rav4?

3. Home Depot or any other big box home improvement store. Your mass produced McMansion is falling apart after five years or you need materials for a big brick fireplace on your 300 square foot patio? Save money and buy whatever you need here.

Contrast this with companies that might rather drop dead than be caught advertising with McMansions. Apple: not exactly the image they are trying to portray. Ikea tends to go with smaller spaces. Trendy companies as well as green products likely want to avoid being tied to McMansions.