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American House Shrinkage

by Nic Darling on July 29, 2010 · 7 comments

in Philosophy

I haven’t been keeping up on my NAHB reports lately, but thankfully someone else has picked up the slack. According to Treehugger, those report reading over-achievers, the size of new homes in America has finally stopped it’s seemingly endless progression into the realm of gargantuan absurdity. In fact, in a shockingly uncharacteristic bout of logic, new home sizes in the United States have actually decreased slightly. Apparently the average new home in the US is about 100 square feet smaller than it was just a couple years back. This may seem like an insignificant amount, but it is the change of direction that matters. Much like the bear that was only moments ago charging you and your cowering family and is now, for some reason, walking away, it is less the speed of the retreat than the fact that the bear is no longer intent on eating you.

In keeping with this shameless attempt to surprise me, new homes also sported less bedrooms and bathrooms. There are probably still too many of each, but it’s nice to see a decline of any sort in an industry that has only been about more and bigger for as long as I can remember. New homes with 1.5 baths or less are still under 10% of the market even though households with 2 people or less are a significantly higher percentage, but at least we are making some progress toward less.

Despite this news I remain skeptical. I think this is likely a brief respite from huge. We all remember when SUV sales plummeted due to high gas prices, and more importantly, we remember when they came right back once the cost of a gallon decreased. Our obsession with more is at times briefly effected by fluctuations in the economy, but it never seems to be completely derailed.

Of course, I’m not here to rehash a Treehugger post. I’m here to start a conversation of some sort. To that end . . .

Does this report surprise you? Is it the start of a larger trend or just a brief hiccup in the ongoing bloating of American homes? Is this simply the economic downturn or are there other factors involved?

Talk about it in the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

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Eco Recap - 8.12.10 by Nan Fischer
August 12, 2010 at 9:17 am

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian Dolan July 29, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Loved the bear analogy …. now on to the question you posed…

I think the reduction in the square footage of housing was primarily caused by the economic downturn. Bigger homes were tougher to sell, more expensive to build, and more expensive to live in (heating, cooling, taxes, maintenance, etc) and therefore houses were probably built smaller to save $$$.

However, I do think that more people are becoming aware of the benefits of a home that is smalller/efficient/green and located in a dense, walkable neighborhood. “Suburban gated community” now has a negative connotation in most circles, when 10+ years ago it was the place to be if you wanted a house that doubled as a status symbol.

2 Dan S. August 1, 2010 at 8:17 am

I think the main point here is: build smaller, and renovate small structures. Create trends, make them cool, educate people. Perhaps to read this statistical information as a pat on the back or a tug in the right direction. Predicting the future? That is about optimism vs. pessimism. Shaping the future? That is about vision and making it happen. Let’s keep grabbing at that average square foot number. If enough of us hang on to it, it will pull downward against the “big” motivations of this country, and provide great alternatives for those who want to live smaller.

3 Bob Borson August 2, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I think Brian is correct and that the changes we are seeing are more a result of the economic downturn. As a residential architect who focuses on modern design, the banks are also causing problems for potnential clients because they still aren’t loaning money – which means if a project is going to move forward, there has to be less financial risk for all parties involved. That means less costly houses = smaller footprints.

But please don’t kid yourself, houses will always be a status symbol, doesn’t mean they have to be expensive, but everybody who is buying a residence is considering the perception associated with that residence.

4 Nic Darling August 2, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I agree with Bob. The home will always be a status symbol, but I am wondering if there might be a way to use this opportunity to change the way a home symbolizes status. This is particularly directed at the high-end market where the amount spent is often directly translated to a sense of social position. What if a reduced size with high-end green features became a new way to symbolize status . . . almost a two-seater, sports car like effect. “Sure, this may look small, but it costs more than most mansions.”

We could also talk about this in the middle market where size is often completely out of proportion with quality. Perhaps the introduction of higher-end materials, design and execution could replace the bonus rooms and excessive bedrooms as ways of symbolizing middle class success. Maybe smaller, more sustainable homes could be the new bragging rights at dinner parties.

This is all somewhat wishful thinking as everything we do is geared to more and bigger, including the banking system which struggles to appraise smaller homes. However, I think it needs some thought and attention as we consider ways to market future small homes.

5 Mid America Mom August 4, 2010 at 2:14 am

Seen news of the downward trend earlier this year. I view with my lens as a consumer/ former homeowner.

Does this surprise me, no. Is this reduction deliberate on part of the consumer? I do not think so. Everyone I talk to in the US has some kind of unemployed, underemployed story or family in that position. Cost of home ownership (I used to worry about property taxes ALOT) is taking a toll. Many that say “we need a new house” … are looking for open floorplans. Nicely sized kitchen, informal dining, and family rooms. The builder is responding. We see more open floorplans. Oh the bells and whistles are great but people are not as willing to pay for it. So the builder reduces them, shaves footage a bit here and there, and maybe offers alternatives at a premium.

Just a few thoughts on what many are looking for – 1. Many buying these tract homes know nothing different. They probably grew up in a smaller one. They think a larger home would naturally alleviate most of the issues that had much to do with design. 2. American consumerism at work. Why reno, build custom, or buy resale when you can buy a prepackaged brand new thing with a pretty facade? Move in with 60 days with your choice of colors and finishes! Not much fuss or stress and quick. So alluring.

Thanks for bringing the topic up.
Mid America Mom

6 Pink Robe August 4, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I’d agree that this isn’t an indicator of real change in the mindset of home buyers or builders. People have less money, especially in the middle to low-end of the market. Less money = less house. As soon as people start making more money, they will opt for the biggest footprint they can afford. It’s going to take a generation or three to get sqft/occupant down, and that’s only if there’s a compelling, long-term argument to do so.

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