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Taste for Space Is Spawning Mansions Fit for a Commoner
Hot Housing Market Opens Doors to Mini-Taj Mahals

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005

In the two years since they moved into their voluminous 8,000-square-footer on the edge of Virginia's suburbs, the Bennett family has not once used their formal dining room, where the table is eternally set for eight with crystal, an empty tea set and two unlighted candles.

Not even guests use the palmy, bamboo morning room beyond it; and the museum-like space Bonnie Bennett calls the Oriental Room -- all black lacquer and inlaid pearl, fur, satin and swirling mahogany -- is also gloriously superfluous.

"It's kind of stupid, because we never sit in here," said Bennett, 32, who bought the largest house she could for the investment.

But she carried around a crumpled photo of the furniture for eight years, and now that she has space for it, she admires it as others might a work of art.

"It's just me ," she said.

To drive out into suburbia these days is to survey a landscape of plenty, a place where relatively average people such as Bonnie Bennett, a loan officer, and her husband, a computer salesman, are living ever larger with three-car garages and media rooms, solaria and conservatories.

In one sense, the reasons are obvious: In the Washington region, average incomes are among the highest in the nation. Low interest rates, 100 percent financing and the money that people can make from selling their homes in a booming market have made buying a larger one affordable for more people, whose appetite for space, builders say, seems insatiable.

But why?

In a way, the green frontiers of suburbia are imprinted with visions of perpetual self-improvement in the form of ever-expanding houses that seem at times dreamed into existence, as builders have honed their ability to anticipate people's desires.

And so when Alyson Skinner wanted a bigger house on 10 acres in western Prince William County, there it was.

For just under a million -- and with the equity from her smaller home -- she was able to get more space for roughly the same mortgage payment to accommodate the lifestyle she envisioned for her family. Instead of going out into the world, she preferred to contain the world inside her 5,300-square-foot home.

"We have a media room in the basement, a pool table and a moon bounce, so I don't have to take the kids out and fight traffic," said Skinner, 32, a former art director who lives there with her husband; their two children; and, at times, family and friends who come on weekends. "We enjoy it more when the kids come here and play. Specifically, I'm weird, but I'm supersensitive to the kids getting snatched. Like at Chuck E. Cheese, I have to constantly watch them."

As in many large houses, some of Skinner's rooms are still empty, while others have essentially become playrooms: The windowed conservatory is an empire of pink toys for her daughter. And on a recent weekday, the family room was strewed with plastic shapes in primary colors.

"Mommy!" said a small voice from somewhere.

Skinner, sitting at the 10-foot granite kitchen island, looked up.

"Where are you?" she called to her daughter.

It is difficult, she said, to make the house feel cozy. And yet, having lived there a while, Skinner has begun to imagine rooms she'd like to add.

"Next, I want a huge laundry, a mudroom, an activity room with linoleum floors so if the kids spill the paint, it won't matter," she said. She wants a pool house with a bathroom, and another garage for the mower, the Barbie Jeep and the giant Slip 'n Slide.

"Me and my friends joke about this, but I think Pottery Barn is responsible," Skinner said. "You get the catalogue showing playrooms, then there's a craft room, and you're like, 'Yeah, I need a craft room.'

"The irony is, the bigger the house, the more junk you buy. Then you have nowhere to put it, so you want more storage."

Although figures from the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group, suggest that after 50 years, the average square footage of U.S. homes may be leveling off, some of the nation's production home builders, including Toll Brothers, say that their biggest models are only getting bigger.

Meanwhile, in Dranesville, Waterford Custom Homes has found a niche building what sales director Debra King, 47, calls "affordable mansions for regular people" in the $2 million-to-$4 million range.

To advertise, King and her husband, Michael Iacovacci II, built their own 14,000-square-foot home on Route 7 near the Loudoun County border, a formidable cultured-stone mansion with turrets and fountains and iron gates with roaring black lions.

Inside, the foyer soars three stories to a small dome that is being painted with cherubs but is now just chubby heads floating in a cloud of blue.

Iacovacci, 42, a down-to-earth man who recently threw a party for 100 people with a full orchestra, thinks it's a gas.

"Look in here!" he said, waving toward the dining room and its reproduction of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. "You ever seen seating for 20?!"

They figured that their house, which is still under construction, would represent the high end of what people wanted -- until a client recently requested a 23,000-square-foot rambler, a size approaching that of the Taj Mahal, which is about 35,000 square feet.

There is nothing quite so grand out in western Prince William yet, but there are fainter versions: Tullamore Estates and Catharpin Valley Estates, and Bonnie Bennett's subdivision, Oak Valley.

It is off a winding two-lane road where half-filled balloons are tied to "Pre-construction pricing!" and "Open House!" signs. Driving around, it feels like a party that is either coming, or going.

The Bennetts' reasons for moving to Oak Valley with their two children were clear: They wanted to invest the largess from their townhouse, which had skyrocketed in value, and thus bought the biggest house they could afford.

"It was almost ridiculous not to do it," Bennett said, adding that even if she never exactly wanted 8,000 square feet, she sure loves having it now.

Down the street, Cindy Gray said she didn't quite understand why things were getting so big.

"I don't know what it is about that," she said, standing in the foyer of her 6,000-square-foot home while her son ran laps in the formal living room. "I don't know if it's just a society thing? But over time, you just get used to it."

For Donna Sproles, who lives about a mile away in Green Gables, the quest for more meant not only more house, but also more land.

She and her husband have their 6,000 square feet on 10 acres, which, in her view, provides a little more freedom and independence.

"What I love about this is it's so big that we can go into different areas of the house and have private time, if you will," she said, sitting in the family room of her $800,000 home with her two sons. "If Jonathan wants to play, he's in his area. If Justin wants to go online, he's in his room and he can do that. If someone wants to come in here and watch TV, that's their space," and if she and her husband want to watch TV, they have their own private sitting room, far enough away that the two do not interfere.

"I'm big on everyone having their own space to be their own individual," Sproles said. "I think everyone needs to express themselves."

She grew up poor in West Virginia, with an outhouse and no running water at times, and made a decision early on that she would never live like that again.

"I wanted to become an executive of some sort," said Sproles, who did became a successful computer salesperson. "I wanted to have a cell phone and all that came with it. My vision was to have a big house, drive a big car. . . . I don't know where I got it from -- probably TV. I guess that's where I got it. Maybe 'Dallas.' "

She has Italian tile and a half-horseshoe staircase in the foyer, which reminds her of the one in the country club where she was married.

Her husband, Jeff, who travels constantly and works 14-hour days, said: "Am I happier having space? Absolutely. . . . I don't worry as much. If my kid wants to hit a golf ball, I don't have to worry about it clocking a BMW."

And yet, Donna Sproles said, now that she has lived in the house awhile, it doesn't seem so big.

"You get used to it," she said. "And then, you drive down the road . . ."

Living capaciously has its drawbacks.

It can take an entire weekend to clean the house. Electric and heating bills are often higher than people expect. And simply furnishing the place can be a never-ending task.

George and Georgia Psihas, for instance, have lived in their new, 6,500-square-foot house in Oak Valley for three years without furnishing their dining room and living room.

With Thanksgiving approaching, the rooms were empty last week except for an upright piano and a vacuum cleaner.

"Our thing is we're damn busy," Georgia Psihas said.

She and her husband, who have four children, run a home-improvement business out of their home office, the one room that is used seven days a week.

They simply have not had time, she said, to fix up their dream house, much less enjoy it.

"We moved up . . .," Georgia Psihas said between answering the door and the phone, as if moving up were just one more item on a list of things she had to accomplish. "You know, bigger, better, best, but I don't know necessarily if bigger is better. I don't know if I enjoy it more. The only room I ever sit in is the office. Then I go to sleep in my bed. I don't even know what my bedroom looks like."

She was busy in the cramped office, a room of perhaps 200 square feet where her husband sat at a desk and her daughter, Melinda, at a computer. Faxes were coming over on the machine. Two phones were ringing. The FedEx guy was at the door.

Melinda, 21, flipped through a magazine with a big house sketched on the front, the word "epiphany" underneath.

"This is what she wants," her dad said.

As the Psihases saw it, moving into a bigger house was not something to be questioned, but something to be accepted, an axiom of American life.

"Bigger bigger, better better," Georgia Psihas said. "It's just a part of life."

And one that builders understand very well.

In Orlando, workers are busy finishing up the New American Dream Home, the showpiece of the annual national conference of home builders.

It will be 9,506 square feet, a place Alex Hannigan, the builder, calls "an all-about-me home."

It has a guest wing, five fireplaces, three laundries, a hobby room, an elevator, a spa, a home theater, a summer kitchen, a chandelier lift -- not things that the average American can necessarily afford at the moment, Hannigan said.

But, he added, "we figured we'd make this home in keeping with where our country's going."

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