In Land of Giants, Smallest Houses Larger Than Ever

Townhouses, such as these near Government Center Parkway in Fairfax County, are often the starting point for home buyers, yet square footage continues to expand, creating a challenge for those looking for smaller homes.
Townhouses, such as these near Government Center Parkway in Fairfax County, are often the starting point for home buyers, yet square footage continues to expand, creating a challenge for those looking for smaller homes. (By Tracy A Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006

A young family came recently to Vienna real estate agent Reza Rofougaran with what should have been a simple request: They wanted a small house.

But in the Washington suburbs, that's easier said than done. The family -- an Iranian doctor waiting for his U.S. credentials, his wife and their child -- couldn't find what they were looking for, a townhouse of about 1,400 square feet, a size that in earlier eras easily accommodated a three-bedroom layout. They settled for buying a two-bedroom apartment.

"There is a lot of demand for smaller houses, but you cannot find any of them on the new market," Rofougaran said.

Much has been made of the explosion in size of the largest houses in the area, a trend that actually might be slowing somewhat with cooling housing prices and rising energy costs. Less noted, though, has been the shift at the other end of the scale, where the category once thought of as the "starter home" has all but vanished, or at least expanded beyond recognition.

In Fairfax County, the median size of new townhouses -- for many, the entry into homeownership -- is nearly 1,900 square feet, larger than the median size of a single-family house built in the county in 1970. The median size of Fairfax's new single-family houses has more than doubled to more than 3,700 square feet, suggesting that the smaller end of the spectrum has shifted as much as houses at the large end. And apartments and condominium units aren't picking up the slack: The proportion of Fairfax families living in multifamily housing has barely budged since 1970.

The small starter home is getting scarcer in Montgomery County as well: The average townhouse has grown by nearly 40 percent since the 1980s, to more than 1,800 square feet, and the average condominium unit has doubled in that time, to nearly 1,500 square feet. The excessive size of townhouses built in Clarksburg helped spark the scandal over secret design changes in that planned community.

The virtual disappearance of smaller new homes -- which has occurred even as the average size of households has declined -- has implications for the region, planners and builders agree. It worsens sprawl, they say, because some residents end up living farther out, where smaller new homes are easier to find because land costs less.

The trend also goes to the heart of the region's housing affordability crisis -- a seemingly obvious fact that some experts say is nonetheless overlooked. They argue that the easiest way to make housing more affordable, without getting mired in talk of government subsidies or set-asides for certain income levels, is simply to make it easier for developers to build more small homes. Buyers can still find some older, modestly sized houses, but in a fast-growing region where many small houses are being replaced with bigger ones, the stock of existing homes goes only so far.

"The only way to make housing more affordable is to make housing units smaller," said Stephen S. Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

There is disagreement, though, about why that's such a hard goal to achieve. Some builders say that they'd like to build smaller houses but that sky-high land prices, restrictive zoning and neighbors opposed to higher-density housing make it difficult for developers to build anything but big.

Architect Christian Lessard said he and the other developers of MetroWest, the 2,250-home project underway near the Vienna Metro station, would happily build a larger number of smaller homes, but community opposition limited the number of units they could build. To make back the cost of the land, he said, the builders designed the townhouses they were allowed to build to be as large and expensive as possible -- about 2,500 square feet, a size that in similar developments sells for about $500,000.

Lessard acknowledged that the outcome was not ideal.

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