How Americans' Taste in Houses Has Evolved Over the Last Century

From tin ceilings to pot shelves.

Would you rather have a newly-built home or a piece of local history? Across America today, you can find homes for sale that were built in the 19th century or as recently as yesterday. There’s no mistaking a 1920s Dutch colonial, a 1970s A-frame, or a 2000s home tricked out with the latest spa features.

To guide you through the decades, we looked at listings on Trulia from the past two years and found descriptive phrases that are most characteristic of homes built in each decade.

But just because you want a 19th century Victorian or a 1950s brick rambler doesn’t mean you can find one: each region of the country had its own construction heyday, and the age of homes for sale today in a local market reflect when in history that location had population growth and new home construction. So buckle up ... it’s time to take a trip back in the time machine.

The Way Homes Used to Be: Homes Before 1940

San Francisco Victorians, New York pre-war buildings: old homes are part of local history in much of the country. But across the Sunbelt, population growth has been more recent, so truly old homes are rare. This interactive map shows the percent of on-market homes (as of the last week in March 2013) built in each decade in the largest major metros. (A screen shot of the map is below).

The oldest homes for sale – those built before 1900 – are concentrated in New England and upstate New York. More than 5 percent of homes currently listed in the Massachusetts metros of Peabody, Boston, Middlesex County, Springfield, and Worcester were built before 1900, along with the upstate New York metros of Syracuse, Albany, and Rochester. Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Providence, Rhode Island, round out the 10 metros with the largest share of old homes for sale.

#

Metro

Share of on-market homes built before 1900

Share of on-market homes built before 1940

1

Peabody, MA

11.2%

32.3%

2

Boston, MA

9.5%

29.6%

3

Syracuse, NY

8.7%

26.0%

4

Springfield, MA

7.3%

25.7%

5

Middlesex County, MA

6.9%

26.4%

6

Allentown, PA-NJ

6.8%

27.8%

7

Worcester, MA

6.7%

20.9%

8

Albany, NY

6.6%

20.7%

9

Providence, RI-MA

6.6%

22.8%

10

Rochester, NY

6.5%

27.5%

 

You’ll find a large share of homes built in the 1900s in San Francisco (6.4 percent) – especially just after the 1906 earthquake – while homes from the 1920s are easiest to find in New York (12.3 percent of on-market homes there were built in the 1920s), Los Angeles (9.7 percent), and several Ohio markets including Toledo, Akron, Dayton, and Cleveland. At the other extreme, there are essentially no homes from the 19th century across much of the South and the West. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of on-market homes were built before 1940 in Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale, Phoenix, and other Sunbelt metros.

What’s special about old homes? Listings for homes built before 1900 are far more likely to mention exposed brick, pocket doors (which open by sliding into a "pocket" in the nearby wall rather than swinging open), carriage houses, and grand staircases than homes built in more recent decades. Homes from the 1900s mention tin ceilings, fir floors, and chimneys, while homes from the 1910s often call out kitchen and bathroom features like built-in buffets, claw-foot tubs, and china cabinets. In the 1920s, wood features were popular: properties from that decade call out gumwood trim and herringbone floors. Also in the 1920s, European styles were in vogue: listings mention original French doors, French windows, and Spanish styles. Homes from the 1930s are more likely to mention slate roof and glass door knobs, and curves were in fashion too, with coved ceilings and arched doorways. These popular listing words reveal the evolution of American architecture and building materials – you can see the five phrases that capture the character of each decade in our interactive map based on Trulia’s analysis of for-sale listings.

Housing from the Post-War Boom

America grew rapidly from the 1940s through the 1970s, starting with the end of the Great Depression until the recession in the early 1980s. The homeownership rate also grew rapidly from 43.6 percent in 1940 (it had remained around 45 percent since 1900) to 64.4 percent in 1980. During these decades, population and construction activity shifted to the Midwest, the suburbs, and finally to the Sunbelt.

Homes built in the 1940s account for the highest share of today’s for-sale listings in Detroit (19.6 percent), Los Angeles (10.2 percent), and Cleveland (9.1 percent). In the 1950s, Long Island had a major construction boom, and today nearly one fifth of the area’s homes for sale were built during the decade. The 1960s and 1970s were periods of rapid growth in suburban southern California and Hawaii: high shares of homes for sale today in Orange County, Ventura County, and Honolulu were built in those decades. Homes from the 1970s also account for much of the for-sale inventory in the Florida metros of Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Tampa, and North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota.

As with older homes, post-war home listings call out materials and design features, but they also mention modern conveniences. For instance, listings of 1940s homes mention central heating and air-conditioning. Ramblers and other homes built in the 1950s emphasize parking, such as side drive, double-wide driveway, and enclosed carport, while homes in the 1960s refer to design features like terrazzo floors and dual paned windows. The 1970s saw homes divided into multiple levels, described as spacious bi-level, split entry, and large split level home – a change from the single-story ranch and rambler homes of the 1950s.

Homes on the market today that were built in the 1940s and 1950s are smaller, on average, than homes built in any other decade, and homes built from the 1940s through the 1970s are less expensive than homes built more recently.

The Last 30 Years: Skylights, Island Kitchens, Water Features

More than 80 percent of homes listed for sale today in Austin, Raleigh, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas were built since 1980. In fact, more than one third of the homes listed today in Austin, Raleigh, Houston, and Dallas were built after 2010: these markets had a relatively mild housing downturn during the crash and demand for new construction has remained strong. In contrast, few homes in Las Vegas or Phoenix  have been built since 2010, but more than a third of their listings were built in the boom-and-bust 2000s decade.

Which features are distinctly modern? Homes built in the 1980s offer cathedral ceiling skylights, sunken living rooms, and mirrored closets. The 1990s gave us palladium/palladian windows (a large arched window flanked by smaller rectangular windows), island cooktops, and pot shelves (no, silly, that’s a kitchen feature). Next came the decade of water and audio: infinity edge pools, snail showers, and pre-wired surround sound are often mentioned in listings from the 2000s. Finally, phrases emphasizing artisanship and nature popped in the 2010s, like hand-textured walls, handscraped hardwood floors, and natural light exposure.

Recently, too, homes have gotten bigger, especially since the 1990s: homes built in the current decade are 80 percent bigger than the typical 1940s home. On top of all that, "new" is hard to resist, especially compared with the wear-and-tear that older homes have. As a sales agent in a new Las Vegas development said to me during the boom, "Why buy a used house when you can buy a new house?"

All those extra square feet, island cooktops, and hand-textured walls come at a price. The median listing price of homes built in the 2010s is more than twice that of homes built in the 1900s, 1910s, and 1940s. That means buying a piece of history will set you back a lot less than a big, modern house will.

But in a few markets, old homes cost more than new construction. Homes currently on the market in Houston from the 1920s have a median asking price of $317,900 – more than Houston homes from any other decade. Washington, D.C., homes built in the 1900s and earlier are listed for more than homes built in any other decade. In New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin, too, the decade with the most expensive listings is long in the past.

Where is  buying a piece of local history most expensive, relative to buying a recently built home? Charleston, SC: the median asking price for pre-1900 homes is $805,000 – more than twice the median price of listings from any other decade. Furthermore, the median asking price for 19th (and earlier) century Charleston homes is the highest among all metros for homes from that era. We bet they’re not calling them "used homes" in Charleston.

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