Kiss the McMansion Goodbye: Is the American Home Shrinking?

Very Tiny Houses may be the new American homeowner porn.

I know I'm far from the only one who looks at pictures like this one and thinks wistfully about all the stuff I'd get rid of if I had such a place. I could prune my closet to nothing. Cull out the excess kitchen stuff, and winnow things down to a few pots and place settings. Consolidate all my books, movies and electronic toys onto a single iPad. And my Saturdays would be my own: I could clean the whole place in half an hour flat.

And if we did this, how simple life would be! How much more time I would have for stuff that mattered! And think of the money we could save on mortgages, taxes, utilities, and upkeep!

Of course, the vast majority of us will never actually go all the way to this extreme. (My geek husband's bank of computers alone would overwhelm every inch of this lovely little space with a nova-like explosion of screens and wires; we'd have to sleep on the roof.) But, according to a growing mountain of data from the building and real estate industries, Americans are in fact backing away slowly from the sprawling McMansions of the 1990s, and increasingly tucking ourselves into cozier quarters.

Intriguingly: professionals in the building industry are saying that this move may be a long-term shift that's reflecting a deep sea-change in American values and attitudes about what makes a place a home.

In a 2009 article in USA Today interior designer Christine Brun sums up the emerging ethic: "You're almost unpatriotic to live so large." She points out that baby boomers are downsizing their now-empty nests; and younger adults "don't care if they live in 500 square feet. They just want cool stuff." Add in growing awareness of our environmental footprint and a crashing economy, and you've got a perfect storm that's moving Americans back toward the kind of smaller digs we lived in in the days of Ward and June Cleaver.

How much smaller are homes getting? According to NRDC's Kaid Benfield, the average American home exploded from 983 square feet in the 1950s up to 2,300 square feet early in the 2000s, even as the size of families declined over the decades.

But by 2010, according to data from both and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the median size of a new US home had headed back down toward 2,100 square feet. And that was just single-family homes; the calculations didn't take into account the increasing popularity of condos, which would have brought the number down even further.

Some experts think this long-term trend toward smaller houses is likely to hold steady even if the economy improves. "I don't expect [home size] to come back up," says Gopal Ahluwalia, a VP at NAHB. He notes that nine out of 10 NAHB members surveyed said they were planning to build smaller, lower-priced homes in the future. "We don't need big homes; family size has been declining for the past 35 years." That fact may not have stopped us from going big in the past, but it may matter more in these frugal and eco-conscious times.

Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects, agrees. Even though a healthier economy may stimulate some demand for bigger houses, Baker thinks that the economic shocks of the past few years have dramatically altered people's fundamental attitudes toward home ownership. It's no longer a family's primary financial investment. Now, it's viewed as a place to live -- an investment in day-to-day quality of life. 

Baker also notes that this scaling-back trend was already evident in high-end homes well before the 2008 crash, as affluent homebuyers sought out smaller houses with nicer finishes and higher-quality construction -- another sign of a deeper trend at work.

At all price levels, what people are looking for most of all in a small house is location, location, location. A tiny place can make you feel pretty cooped up unless there's plenty to walk to nearby in the neighborhood. Giving up our private lawns, kitchens, dining rooms, and garages means that we'll need to rely more and more on public places to take over the recreation and entertainment functions of our lives. For this reason, small houses are far more liveable when they're close to shops, parks, evening entertainment like restaurants and theaters, and transit that can quickly whisk you around town.

This deep shift, which homebuilders have already been responding to over the past few years, points to the potential for some longer-term changes in how American cities are built. If people are hungry for smaller homes, that bodes well for sustainability solutions that involve greater urban density -- and a serious turn away from the old suburban model, which the marketplace is increasingly treating like an ugly, unwanted old dinosaur from an era we'd rather forget. 

And if small is beautiful and density is desirable, then cities are going to be needing to invest far more in the kind of public infrastructure that makes these tiny homes liveable -- those parks and transit centers and retail hubs, for example. As we turn toward smaller homes, voter demand for these kinds of amenities will increase. And, at some point, our attitude toward paying higher taxes to make these investments will have to shift as well.

In the meantime, no doubt more and more of us will be reading more juicy homeowner porn featuring sexy pictures of IKEA kitchens, cunning storage solutions, and tiny houses that we might imagine are inhabited by beings far more serene, unencumbered and creative than we are. If the necessary shift of the 21st century is to get Americans to turn away from lives built on stuff, the smaller-house trend is a clear sign that an important piece of the change is already underway.

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