The housing crash did nothing to tamp our appetite for enormous houses


(Washington Post file photo)

There was a time during the Great Recession when it looked like Americans were rethinking our mega-homes, reining in our budgets and ambitions and love of the three-car garage.

Clearly, that moment has passed. Census data released Monday on the characteristics of new single-family housing construction confirms that the median size of a new pad in America is bigger than it's ever been:

Source: Census Bureau
Source: Census Bureau

In 2013, the median size of a new single-family home completed in the United States was 2,384 square feet (the average, not surprisingly, was tugged even higher by the mega-mega home: 2,598 square feet). That median is above the pre-crash peak of 2,277 square feet in 2007, and it dwarfs the size of homes we were building back in 1973 (median size then: 1,525 square feet).

Historically, this trend actually runs counter to another demographic pattern: Our homes have been getting larger as our households have actually been shrinking. So the long-running American appetite for ever bigger homes can't be explained by the need to fit more people into them (the recession, however, has caused a bit of a blip in this trend).

What, then, do we want all of this room for? What's particularly striking in the Census Bureau's historic data on new housing characteristics is the growth of what would be luxuries for many households: fourth bedrooms, third bathrooms, three-car garages. Notably, demand for all three dipped during the recession in parallel to the trend line above.

Below, the long-term rise of all three housing features is plotted alongside two other notable additions to the new American home, air conditioning and porches:


Source: Census Bureau

Before 1987, the Census didn't even collect data on houses with three baths or more. The same is true of three-car garages before 1992.

These numbers are not a reflection of all U.S. housing stock. Rather, they reflect only trends in new construction, and only new construction among single-family homes. Apartment buildings aren't included here. But as new housing comes to replace the old, these historic figures capture broad changes in how Americans want to (and think they can afford to) live -- and in how the tax code has enabled them.

Right now, high-end homes are driving new single-family construction. And so perhaps these numbers will scale back some as the housing market continues to recover for families who can only offer smaller down payments and have dreams of more modest homes (families who, today, face a harder time getting a mortgage). It seems unlikely at this point, though, that the housing crash fundamentally altered the long-term trajectory of the ever-expanding American home.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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