Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Square footage is growing faster now than it did during the housing boom, but the culture of the McMansion may be changing.
The housing crisis may have wiped out Lehman Brothers, Iceland, and the credit of home buyers across the nation. But it didn’t put a dent in the McMansion.
Oh, for sure, the average size of new single-family houses dipped a bit between 2007 and 2009. After ticking up slowly over the course of the 1990s and ramping up a bit more quickly in the first half of the 2000s, the party came to a halt in 2008, when the average square feet of new homes fell 3 square feet.
But the bounce is back. Between 2010 and 2011, the average size of new houses grew from 2,392 square feet to 2,480 square feet—the biggest push since the late 1980s, according to Census data. Last year, the mean square footage for a new U.S. home crested 2,600 square feet for the first time. Median square footage is rising the same way. The trend is being driven by a surge in the construction of ginormous houses.
In 2014, 12 percent of all new single-family homes built in the U.S. were more than 4,000 square feet in floor area. There were three times as many homes built in the 3,000-3,999 square feet range as there were homes under 1,400 square feet. The recovery is being super-sized.
“Coming out of the recession, a lot of builders were stuck with a lot of developable lots that they were going to develop as the housing construction was booming,” says Selma Hepp, chief economist at Trulia. “After the recession, instead of building what they were building up to that point, they started building larger homes to capitalize on those developable lots.”
The scarcity of lots is driving builders to build larger. Almost one-third of the new single-family houses built for sale in 2014 were larger than 3,000 square feet (32 percent). That’s more than the share of houses built in the 1,800-2,399 square feet range (28 percent) and much more than anything smaller (17 percent).
Hepp says the luxury market led construction for new houses during the recovery, so that’s part of it. Wealthy or international buyers who could still acquire mortgages or pay with cash in the aftermath of the credit collapse may have spurred builders to make larger houses. But land scarcity is probably the largest factor.
“Today, we have such a scarcity of lots, [builders] are trying to maximize their profits on the lots that they have available,” Hepp says.
Land in metro areas and inner-ring suburbs—where the appetite exists for new construction—isn’t getting any less scarce. Builders may continue to try to capitalize on that fact by building larger single-family homes.
At the same time, smaller builders are coming back online, adding more capacity for building in-fill development in urban areas, which tends to mean smaller homes. In fact, there’s reason to believe people don’t necessarily prefer larger homes, even when it comes to single-family houses. The Census data show that owner-built houses are growing in size more slowly, and tend to be smaller, compared with contractor-built homes. Maybe the surge in the size of houses won’t follow its present course for long.
The culture of the McMansion itself could be changing, too. As minorities and multigenerational households drive growth in the cities and suburbs where construction is most abundant, buyers may want larger homes not so much out of a lust for space but to have enough room for their families.
”We’re going to have much more diverse buyers coming into the market,” Hepp says. “Developers are adjusting to [multigenerational housing]. In some cultures it’s quite normal to have different generations living under the same roof.”