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Americans say they want smaller homes. So why do they keep buying bigger ones?

at 01:22 PM ET, 02/25/2012

Real-estate experts keep predicting that the McMansion era in the United States is over, now that the housing bubble has burst. Americans, they say, will be more cost-conscious and buy smaller homes. And yet the new homes that were actually sold last year were bigger than ever. So what gives?


(Jim R. Bounds - BLOOMBERG)
It’s true that most Americans say they want to buy smaller homes. For decades, U.S. homes kept ballooning in size — from a median of 983 square feet in the 1950s to 2,300 square feet at the height of the housing bubble in 2007. But after the market crashed, attitudes seemed to shift. Kaid Benfield points to a 2010 survey from the research firm Trulia, which finds that the median “ideal home size” among Americans has dropped back down to 2,100 square feet — about what it was in the 1990s. That’s one reason why the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) expects the size of new U.S. homes to shrink in the coming years.

But weirdly enough, that’s not what’s happening so far, Lew Sichelman of the Urban Land Institute reports from the annual NAHB convention in Orlando. In the first half of last year, the median newly built singly-family home was actually 2,522 feet — a full bedroom bigger than the median new home that was built in 2010. In fact, the typical new home built in the first half of 2011 was slightly larger than the typical new home at the height of the housing bubble.

Why is this? Sichelman offers one theory. Most Americans might prefer smaller homes, but right now, they’re not doing much buying. Lending is still tight, which means that the market for new homes is still dominated by a small handful people with high incomes, great credit and lots of money for a down payment. Those buyers are usually on their second or third or fourth home, and they’re usually buying homes that are much larger than average.

So, for now, homes keep getting bigger, not smaller. And it might just be a temporary aberration. Last year, after all, saw the fewest number of new houses built since World War II, and the market was dominated by a relatively small number of people who want large houses. If the economy keeps improving and banks start lending more freely, those trends could change and the new craze for smaller homes might finally catch on. But it hasn’t yet.

(By the way, even if American homes do shrink slightly, they’ll still be much bigger than homes abroad. A 2009 survey from Britain’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that the average new home built in the United States has twice the floor space of those built in France and Spain and is three times as large as the average new British home.)

 
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