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What's going on with new home sizes - is the madness finally over?

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 9, 2012 in Living Sustainably

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  Americans' "ideal home size" over the decades (by: Trulia)

After many years of dramatically increasing home size in America - from an average of 983 square feet in the 1950s up to 2300 square feet in the 2000s, despite declining household sizes - the trend appears finally to be going in the other direction.  The real estate research firm Trulia found in 2010, for example, that the median "ideal home size" for Americans had declined to around 2100 square feet.  More than one-third of survey respondents reported that their ideal preference was lower than 2000 square feet.

This is consistent with the forecasts of the National Association of Home Builders.  (See detailed findings here.)  Data from the census are also consistent in direction with those from Trulio's survey, though more subtle in the degree of change:  according to the census, the median size of a new US home in 2010 was 2,169 square feet, up from 1,525 sqare feet in 1973 but down from the 2007 peak of 2,277 square feet.

  Americans' "ideal home size" in 2010 (by: Trulia)

So, while the recent change has been observed in the industry for a few years now, the graphs shown with this post are the best I've seen yet to depict both how out-of-control home sizes had become and the more recent trend toward downsizing.  The downsizing trend is expected to continue even after the economy recovers, according to a spokesperson from NAHB.

The census data also include trends in average home size, which runs somewhat larger than median home size:

  average US new home size, 1973-2010 (US Census, via Mark Perry, U of Michigan-Flint)

The recent downsizing is still evident and consistent with the median size data and the Trulio report..

Not all with an interest in the matter seem willing to concede the point, however.   Stanton Homes, a North Carolina-based builder whose website features large new homes, groups all homes from 1,800 to 2,300 square feet (a 28 percent increase) in one category to show that the portion of homes sold within that size range has remained the same since 2006, although it has declined slightly from the preceding seven years.  Even Stanton's analysis, however, shows declines since 2006 in the portion of the total new housing market claimed by homes of 2,400 square feet and larger in size, with the sharpest drop in the largest (4,000 square feet and larger) category.  Stanton's data also show a decided increase in the market share claimed by homes under 1,400 square feet since the mid-2000s.

                   new home featured on Stanton Homes website

The National Association of Realtors doesn't seem ready to concede the point, either.  The organization finds significance in a comparison of survey data reportedly compiled by the American Institute of Architects.  This is from a recent NAR article titled, "Are Home Sizes Finally Done Shrinking?":

"In the first quarter of 2010, nearly 60 percent of the architects surveyed in AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey reported home sizes declining. Fast forward to the first quarter of 2011 and that number now has dropped to 52 percent, while 5 percent of architects are now reporting an increase in home sizes. Home sizes in the upper-end of the market, in particular, appear to be stabilizing ahead of more affordable entry-level homes."

Now, to me that sounds like a majority of architects in 2010 reported declining home sizes, and then a majority in 2011 reported even further decline.  It also sounds like the Realtors are doing some wishful reporting (or at least headline-writing).  But whatever.

Bear in mind that the census data include single-family, detached homes, semi-detached, and townhomes but do not include condominiums and apartments.  If homes in multifamily configurations were counted, the average and median sizes would be considerably smaller and the trends perhaps more pronounced. 

                   country-by-country comparison of new home sizes (by: Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment via the BBC)

Meanwhile, new home size in the US is decidedly extravagant compared to that in other countries.  A survey and data comparison conducted by the (now-defunct, unfortunately) British Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment found the size of an average new American home built in the 2000s to be approximately twice as large in floor space as one in Spain or France, and nearly three times as large as the average in the UK.

For more good graphs on the US trend from Trulia, go here.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channel.

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Comments

JoshFeb 9 2012 09:29 AM

I wonder what that first chart would look like if taken farther into the past. My 1880's era row house is just under 2000 square feet, about the same size as the hundreds of houses in my urban, walkable neighborhood.

I guess my point is that square footage is not a perfect proxy for sprawl, and there are plenty of big houses (many very old) that are not at all McMansions.

SpencerFeb 9 2012 09:53 AM

Josh, that's a good point; I would imagine that lot size is a better proxy. My neighborhood doesn't have a lot of row houses but is one of those old "streetcar suburbs" from about a hundred years ago. The lots are small but not all the houses are (mine is, though - a 1000 sqft Arts & Crafts bungalow). So yeah, we have large homes coexisting with smaller ones in a way that does not lead to sprawl at all.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 9 2012 12:39 PM

Josh and Spencer, I agree that lot size is a better indicator of sprawl. But sprawl is not the only issue relevant to sustainability, and interior size matters to issues such as materials use and energy consumption.

I also agree that many older homes have size - but so did older households, on average, compared to today's. I find it striking that in recent decades interior size has increased so much despite the shrinking size of average households.

Brian SchmidtFeb 10 2012 12:08 PM

Nice post - it would be interesting to figure out if the changes are due to changed preferences or changing demographics - particularly more seniors with no kids and reduced incomes relative their pre-retirement years.

Either way, the change is real and welcome, but changing preferences might mean it could move even faster.

Comments are closed for this post.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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