Housing Trends in America
LESLIE: Well, according to a recent report, the oversized homes known as “McMansions” are out and smaller homes are in.
TOM: It’s the absolute reverse of a trend that showed the average size of an American home growing every year for the past several decades. Here to tell us more about this housing trend and more is Kevin O’Connor, host of This Old House.
KEVIN: Hi, guys. Great to be here.
TOM: And it used to be that bigger was better but all that seems to be changing now, including some of the project choices that you guys have taken on in recent years, correct?
KEVIN: We are doing a lot of small projects. And I’ll tell you, the very first project that I did when I joined the team eight years ago was a Concord cottage. And in fact, it was the smallest project we did in our 25-year history.
It was a little barn on the back of a person’s property and they wanted to create a space for their parents to move in with them, so that they could downsize but still stay in the neighborhood and stay close to the family. And at just about 1,000 square feet, we made this beautiful, little, one-bedroom – almost a grandparents’ suite – for them.
And there was no shortage of details or comfort in this small space. And we’ve done a bunch of those over the course of the last 8 to 10 years, to show that it’s really about the quality and not so much the quantity.
TOM: So, Kevin, there’s been an awful lot of changes over the years with the sizes of homes, hasn’t there?
KEVIN: Yeah, there has and there’s been sort of a continuous and relentless march upwards for the last 50 or 60 years, in terms of the average size of a home.
Think about this: in 1950, the total square feet of the average U.S. home was about 1,000 square feet. And that grew to about 2008 to 2,500 square feet. And it’s a remarkable change because the houses more than doubled in size. And when you think about it in terms of how much square feet per person, this is the thing that I find most shocking: in 1950, each one of us had about 300 square feet per person in a home; today, we have about1,100 square feet per person per home.
KEVIN: Yeah, is that incredible? Now think about that: the average square feet per person in 2008 is slightly bigger than the average size of an entire house in 1950. Things have changed.
TOM: And what do we do with all that square footage?
LESLIE: Fill it with stuff.
TOM: We fill it with stuff. I need more stuff.
KEVIN: So, things have definitely changed in the last six years and it’s only been recently that the average size of the American home has really leveled off. We aren’t seeing the growth that we had over the last few decades.
TOM: Yeah and shock of all shocks, we’re finding out that we can get along just fine with less space.
KEVIN: This is true.
LESLIE: So now, if you have aspirations to a home of McMansion proportions but you really just want to live in something a lot smaller and manageable, how do you sort of best use those spaces where you can really get what you want but really live on a smaller scale?
KEVIN: Well, best use of those spaces, I think, is the key idea right there, Leslie. You know, the American home that we’re so familiar with – that has sort of an entry parlor or a living room plus then a family room and a kitchen and all the various things that come with these houses, as we know them – we changed the way we live our lives. We live much more open lives now where we share rooms. And there’s no reason why we need all of the old rooms that we used to have.
And so, if you think about how you use the house, before you know it, you’re actually eliminating some rooms. The dining room kind of goes away in a lot of people’s houses because it’s now the kitchen. Eat-in kitchen becomes the dining room and kitchen area.
TOM: But it’s interesting if you think about it. You say that we’ve changed the way we use those rooms. Well, I don’t know about your parents but mine never let me play in the formal dining room or formal living room, so we weren’t using the rooms very much back then.
TOM: But I guess we didn’t seem to mind paying for it.
LESLIE: It’s true. And I think we’re seeing a lot in trending where you’re taking one space that’s maybe a guest room and doubling it as a home office or home office/playroom. You’re sort of doubling duty, if you will, in these rooms.
KEVIN: It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that our homes have changed, because none of us live the lives or work the way we did 60 years ago. And so why should we expect our houses to remain stagnant in terms of how they are used?
By changing the way we use these spaces, I think it really frees up our ability to work with the existing space we have without necessarily requiring more space.
TOM: And let’s not forget, it’s a whole lot less expensive to heat and cool 1,200 square feet than it is to cool and heat 3,600 square feet.
LESLIE: That’s just enormous.
LESLIE: So what is happening? I mean we’re seeing so many of these ginormous houses out there and they’re not selling and they’re not moving; they’re just sitting on the market. What’s going to happen to these homes? What’s going to become of them?
KEVIN: I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s hard to say. It’s one thing to say, “Well, the ginormous homes aren’t selling,” but right now, nothing’s selling.
LESLIE: That’s true.
KEVIN: Unless you’re buying your first-time home and there’s a government tax credit out there, really, nothing is selling. So I wouldn’t pronounce these homes dead. Bigger isn’t necessarily bad either, because we can build a home today at 3,500 square feet and it can be far more efficient than a 1,700-square-foot home that was built 60 years ago, just because we have the technology, the insulation and mechanical equipment.
So I don’t think we want to judge the houses by their size only. I think we want to judge the houses by are they useful for us, do they consume too much energy and do they provide the utility that the family is asking for and no more? And if you’ve got a family of seven, you need a bigger house than if you’ve got a family of four.
KEVIN: That’s just a plain and simple fact. It’s really how we use the house as opposed to the absolute size of the house that I think is most important.
TOM: That’s great advice. Kevin O’Connor, host of TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for dropping by The Money Pit.
And you can get lots more ideas, no matter how big or small your house; we’re not going to judge. But visit ThisOldHouse.com.
LESLIE: And you can watch Kevin and the entire This Old House team on This Old House and Ask This Old House, on your local PBS station.
TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by Lumber Liquidators. Lumber Liquidators, hardwood floors for less.