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The shrinking American home: myth or reality?

Jeffrey Anderson | Improvement Center Columnist | September 6, 2013

How much house is enough? After decades of steady growth, data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that the average size of new homes began to decline during the recent economic downturn. Smaller designs with an emphasis on energy efficiency came into vogue rather than expansive square footage and numerous rooms that were seldom used.

It appeared that it took the "Great Recession" to teach many homeowners a difficult lesson: that purchasing more house than was really needed could quickly turn into a financial burden. Large homes usually came with high utility costs, a lot of expensive maintenance, and in many cases, very big mortgages.

There are numerous reports that a housing recovery could finally be underway -- at least in some parts of the country. As prospective buyers enter the marketplace once again, will the trend toward smaller eco-friendly structures continue? The latest numbers seem to show that some lessons may take a while to sink in.

House size trends: it's not about family size

The Census Bureau has been compiling data on U.S. housing trends since the 1940s. The information comes from questionnaires filled out by families and builders and from surveying building permits across the nation. Here are a few numbers that may surprise you:

  • 983--The number of square feet in a new home constructed in 1950
  • 3.54--The number of people in a family in 1950
  • 2,057--The square footage of a new home in 2000--more than twice the size of a 1950 model
  • 3.14--The size of a typical family in 2000
  • 2,277--The number of square feet in a new house in 2007--just before the economy took a nosedive.
  • 2,169 -- The square footage of a new home constructed in 2009 when supposedly the concepts of smaller and more energy efficient began to take effect
  • 3.14--The size of a family in 2010
  • 2,505--The number of square feet in a new single-family home constructed in 2012--so much for smaller and more efficient

All of the numbers are based on national averages and may vary by specific region. As can be seen from the data, there's very little correlation between home sizes and the number of people in a typical U.S. family down through the years. The numbers would also seem to show that the trend toward smaller, more efficient houses was extremely short- lived.

Is owning a McMansion the American dream?

There are numerous thoughts as to why U.S. homes have continued to grow larger over the past 50 years. Some feel that it could be due to land becoming more expensive as desirable building lots become scarce. Builders who pay a lot for the land have to put a large house on it to make a decent profit.

The death of small town America in many areas is another theory that has been advanced. Homeowners who grew up going to neighborhood movie theaters and restaurants now find it much more convenient to enjoy those pleasures in the comfort and safety of their homes. Watching a movie on a big screen TV while relaxing with their family beats contending with heavy traffic and standing in line at the Cineplex just about every time -- in a way their house has become their very own small town.

Karl Riedel, an architect in Leesburg, Va., thinks the reason for the continued size-growth of U.S. homes is very simple. "Lay a graph showing the increasing average size of homes over a graph that depicts economic growth in this country over the last 50 or so years," Riedel says, "and you'll see that they mirror each other very closely."

Riedel feels that for the typical American family their home "represents them to their community" and is "a reflection of their accomplishments." The concept might be as old as that of the worker who aspires to one day live in a home as fine as the factory-owner's mansion. Riedel has seen many instances of small families moving into houses much larger than they could ever use. In his opinion, they were willing to take on the home maintenance--in some cases paying to have rooms cleaned that had no furniture--and the high mortgage payments to convey the outward appearance of prosperity.

So what does the future hold? Will the average house size continue to grow? It would appear that all the articles written in recent years about the shrinking American home were a bit premature. What was thought to be a trend may have only been a hiccup brought on in large part by a challenging economy. At least for some families, owning the largest house on the block will always be the American dream--even if they have to live like paupers to afford it.

About the Author

Jeffrey Anderson has a Degree in English from V.M.I., and served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He worked in Residential and Commercial construction management for 25 years before retiring to write full time. He spends his time writing, remodeling his old farmhouse, and in animal rescue.

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