Lifestyle

Americans Dream of Bigger Homes but Reality Is More Cramped


Years of accessible financing spurred home buyers to buy big, but in the new reality lower costs increasingly take priority over square footage

Some might call it a simpler time. Others might say life was just less comfortable. In 1973, about three people lived in each household in the U.S. The average single-family home built that year was one story, 1,660 sq. ft., and had two or three bedrooms. It was very rare to have more than two bathrooms. Home life transformed in the following decades: Increased access to financing allowed first-time home buyers to buy larger residences. More homes were built with two stories, and at least four bedrooms and three bathrooms, U.S. Census Bureau data show. Siblings were no longer expected to share bedrooms. Such new amenities as media rooms were added. By 1990 the average American household had shrunk to about 2.6 people, yet the average single-family home built that year was 2,080 sq. ft.—about an extra 400 sq. ft. (just larger than the average U.S. hotel room, which is 325 sq. ft., according to PricewaterhouseCoopers) compared with 1970. "The standard of living increased, and most households strived very hard to meet that standard," says Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders. A small percentage of new homes were even larger: By 2000, 66,000 new homes, about 5 percent of homes built that year, measured 4,000 sq. ft. or more, according to Census Bureau data. By 2006 the total more than doubled to 137,000 homes, 8 percent of homes built that year. In 2007 the average size of completed homes peaked at 2,521 sq. ft. Some cities around the country—many of them wealthy communities—had a greater proliferation of large homes. Data based on home listings in 20,000 Zip Codes and 200 metro areas provided to Businessweek.com by Altos Research, a real-time real estate data company in Mountain View, Calif., show that the median size of homes for sale with a Cherry Hills Village, 80113 address was the largest in the U.S.: 7,654 sq. ft.—more than three times the U.S. median. The listed homes had a median of six bedrooms and seven bathrooms. Other cities that ranked high: exclusive communities such as Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and Leawood, Kan. Affluent Denver Suburbs Cherry Hills Village, an affluent suburb 10 miles south of downtown Denver, has a high median household income of $226,552, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. About 40 percent of homes in the city, incorporated in 1945, were built from 1950 to 1969, Census Bureau data show; 86 percent were built from 1950 to 1999. Most of the largest residences on the market—those bigger than 10,000 sq. ft.—were built in the last decade, according to a search on Zillow.com. The 20,198 sq. ft. home at 7 Cherry Hills Park Drive, for example, was built in 2001, a listing by Kentwood Real Estate broker associate Sandy Weigand indicates. Of course, large homes come with a large price tag: The median list price in the area is $2,395,000. A suburb just south, Greenwood Village, came in No. 8 in this ranking. Median household income in the city—incorporated in 1950—is $114,460, estimates the Census Bureau. The median size of listed homes in Greenwood Village, 80121 is 5,786 sq. ft., and the median list price is $1,249,000, according to Altos Research. Greater Pittsburgh: Large Homes Old and New Cherry Hills Village may rank No. 1, yet Greater Pittsburgh had six Zip Codes on our list of places with the biggest homes for sale: Pittsburgh, 15238; Venetia, 15367; Wexford, 15090; Sewickley, 15143; Gibsonia, 15044; and Mars, 16046.

While many large homes were built in the last 20 years, some of the largest homes in the Pittsburgh area were built before the 1980s. In the Pittsburgh metro area, 30.4 percent of all housing units were built in 1939 or earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and a total of 80.5 percent were built before 1980, after which home construction in the area slowed significantly. In the city of Pittsburgh, 53 percent of homes were built before 1939. A search on Zillow.com of single-family homes for sale in the Pittsburgh, 15238 area (No. 6 on the ranking) shows about half of the homes larger than 4,000 sq. ft. were built before 1980. About 15 miles away, Sewickley has a number of older homes for sale that were built more than 100 years ago—including a 6,262 sq. ft. residence at 4 Linden Place (listed by real estate firm Howard Hanna for $1,295,000) built in 1890, show records from the Allegheny County Office of Property Assessments. About 15 to 20 miles north of Pittsburgh in Wexford, Gibsonia, and Mars, listed homes larger than 4,000 sq. ft. were generally built after 1990, according to a search on Zillow.com. About 17 miles south of Pittsburgh in Venetia, the large homes on Zillow.com were mostly built in the 2000s. Americans Downsizing Palatial living will always appeal to those who can afford it, yet practical home buyers are expressing interest in just slightly smaller homes. After the recession, the average size of single-family housing starts fell slightly—by 5 percent since 2007—to 2,382 sq. ft. in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In a survey by real estate search company Trulia.com, 55 percent of people prefer a home from 1,401 to 2,600 sq. ft.; only 9 percent prefer a home larger than 3,200 sq. ft. Even though homes have grown in size over the last few decades, only 3.6 percent of nearly 4.8 million homes on Trulia.com are larger than 4,000 sq. ft., according to Daisy Kong, a spokesperson for the company. (Some companies are now specializing in extremely small homes, such as Twelve Cubed, which designs homes that only measure about 12 feet square and 12 feet tall. Still, lifestyle demands may keep residences from shrinking too much.) While the large number of empty nesters and first-time home buyers will likely prefer smaller, affordable homes, "growing families seek larger homes that most efficiently contribute to their lifestyle demands," says NAHB's Melman. The number of multigenerational households, for instance, grew from 5 million (4.8 percent of all households) in 2000 to 7.1 million (6.1 percent) in 2010, according to a report by the AARP Public Policy Institute. The trend has been driven in part by young adults moving back with parents and immigrant groups that tend in live in multigenerational households, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. If multigenerational living becomes more popular with Americans, it could support demand for large homes, Melman says. In this new age, he adds, "now buyers are mostly concerned with affordability, controlling energy costs, and moving into a home that supports their lifestyle—even if it falls short of their ideal." Click here to see the U.S. Zip Codes with the biggest houses.


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