McMansionization of America

Over the last few decades there has been one home that has stood out as a model home, of sorts – the McMansion.  First appearing in the 1980s, the term “McMansion” has evolved over the years to generally refer to a new home which feels too large for its property and out of scale with the homes around it.  The popularity and accessibility of these over-sized homes was fueled by easy access to low-cost loans, such as sub-prime mortgages, which allowed people to buy more house than they could actually afford.  This debt-driven real estate splurge lead directly to the Great Recession (2007-2009), the worst global recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Ironically, the growth of these larger homes occurred at the same time that the average American family reduced in size.  Based on US Census Data, the average American household size shrunk by 15% leading up to the recession, from 3.01 people (1973) to 2.56 people (2007).  During this same period the median size of new homes increased by nearly 50%, from 1,525 S.F. (1973) to 2,277 S.F. (2007).  Combined, this data shows that the median new home, comparing square foot per person, increased by a staggering 76%.  While the recession lead to a brief stabilization of new home size, as the economy began to recover home sizes returned to their previous upward trend reaching 2,467 S.F. by 2015.   This trend was further exaggerated in the Washington, DC area where, according to Metrostudy, in the first three quarters of 2017 the median new home size was 3,536 S.F. – the nation’s largest.  This larger median size was driven by homeowners and developers maximizing the buildable area of a particular property with help from local zoning regulations that often allow for home sizes nearing 8,000 S.F., even on smaller lot sizes (6,000 S.F.).

There is a price to be paid for these larger homes that goes beyond the extreme cost of their construction and their subsequent mortgage.  Their footprint covers more natural landscape, creates more stormwater runoff and water pollution, uses more energy to power and control interior temperatures, requires more labor to maintain and upkeep, and increases the amount of property taxes owed.  This is without accounting for any potential extrapolating effects on climate change or the devastating impact they caused with the global recession.

Knowing all of this, why do we so eagerly continue to bear their costs?  What if we changed the way we approached new home development?  What if we designed and built homes that were sized to fit our actual needs and eliminated rooms whose sole function it is to collect dust?  What if we stopped building McMansions and decided today’s median home size should be its maximum size?