Are Smaller Homes Here to Stay?

BY FABIANA MEACHAM
November 18, 2010
Downsizing the McMansion lifestyle

[Photo Credit: flickr user Dean Terry]

The post-recession trend toward smaller homes in suburban communities has grown over the past few years – and as the economy continues to lag, it’s likely these more modest homes will only rise in popularity. It remains unclear, however, if Americans have really begun to reevaluate the excesses of 6.5 bathrooms and a “celebrity-style media and screening room,” or whether they’re just putting those dreams on hold for the time being.

The building industry has certainly reacted to the American home-buyer’s current need for a more affordable, pared down lifestyle. A recent New York Times article featured Builder magazine’s 2010 “concept home,” a 1,700 square foot “Home for the New Economy.” A virtual tour of the house emphasizes the house's “roominess and livability,” low energy load and flexible interior spaces.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has also released a report on the changing housing industry, focusing on consumers’ new demands for single-family homes. According to the study, “characteristics of homes started in 2009 reveal a marketplace adapting to tougher economic times with fewer luxuries, but also point to a few amenities that have been on the upswing despite the general retrenchment of consumers.” While new houses are getting smaller and cheaper, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms showed little change. The study also found that while amenities like three-car garages, fireplaces and patios have declined, porches have shown an increase in popularity. (The Home for the New Economy features front and back porches.) One luxury feature that persists in new home construction is the two-story foyer – 30% of homes started in 2009 had one. It appears American homebuyers are willing to give up almost anything before a grand entrance.

But perhaps it is more important to consider whether new communities of smaller homes can make up for the decreased square footage of the houses themselves. In the same New York Times article, New Urbanist founding father Andres Duany posits that “the sprawling homes of the last decade met a need, albeit imperfectly, by reproducing internally what suburban communities lacked: an exercise room substitutes for a park, a home theater for the Main Street cinema.” Regardless of your take on Duany’s special brand of small-town American urbanism, it’s comforting to think that an increased demand for porches (and their tendency to foster social interaction), is the first manifestation of Americans’ newfound desire to reengage with their communities. It remains to be seen whether Americans will continue to appreciate them when they can once again afford larger, more isolated properties.

To better visualize the changing features of new single-family homes, The Wall Street Journal has created an interactive floor plan comparison of boom-era and post-recession luxury homes. Read the accompanying article, “Builders Downsize the Dream Home.”