We Americans love our big houses. In 2015 the Census Bureau reported the average size of a new house built increased to an all-time high of 2,687 square feet and the median was a record 2,467 sq ft. Those figures are about than 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973 (earliest this data was recorded) when the average new house was 1,660 sq ft and the median was 1,525 sq ft.
While we’ve been building bigger houses, our households have been shrinking. In 1973 the average household was 3.01 persons and in 2015 it averaged 2.54 persons. Thus, the average amount of living space per person has jumped by 92% – from 551 sq ft to 1,058. The average cost per square foot of new home construction has only risen slightly, on an inflation-adjusted basis, since 1973. However, with increasing house size, the costs of purchasing, furnishing and maintaining a home has increased, adding to greater debt and lower savings rates.
Related IFOD: The American obsession with lawns
Why do we Americans buy big houses? I found no clear answer in researching this question. Probably the best answer I found was from Robert Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University. He thinks it is about context and subject to many factors. “This is about what we feel we need as a function of the context in which we live,” he says. “We know that when everyone stands up, no one gets a better view. We know there are all sorts of situations where individual choices that are perfectly rational add up to a total outcome that none of us likes very much. This is one of those.” He thinks as the size of houses has increased so has our reference for what a normal sized house is. Further, if the area of town you want to live in due to school districts and the like has bigger houses then that’s what you’ll buy even if you don’t necessarily desire a big house.
What effect does this have on families? It’s not necessarily good. According to John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard University “The big house represents the atomizing of the American family. Each person not only has his or her own television — each person has his or her own bathroom. Some of these houses are literally designed with three playrooms for two children. This way, the family members rarely have to interact. And the notion of compromise is simply out one of the very many windows these houses sport.”
A great article on this topic is by David Brooks of the NY Times – reading this article in 2011 has had a pretty big effect on my worldview of houses and neighborhoods (and A factor for why we’ve stayed in our neighborhood). Here’s the article: The Haimish Line
Surprisingly, America only ranks second in terms of average house size. Aussies are the champion.