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Keeping Up With the Jonesing

The Brass Ring of Modern Suburbia Is Big. Really Big. Just Turn the Key, Open the Oversized Front Door of Your 'McMansion' and Step Into the Ultimate Manifestation of the American Dream. Just Like the People Next Door.

April 27, 2003|Bill Sharpsteen | Bill Sharpsteen's last story for the magazine was about photographer Herb Ritts.

You want this house. You can feel a dreamy desire bordering on lust for the high faux-adobe walls, the five bedrooms, the four fireplaces, the built-in barbecue on a side patio and the two-story foyer with a retractable skylight. At 6,162 square feet, this is a house in which you and the dog could play Frisbee in the foyer. The arches over many doorways, the ostentatious columns lining the hallway, the broad countertops in whatever expensive material you choose--the architectural details have been on your mind for days. Never mind that it sits side by side with cookie-cutter homes in what essentially is a suburban housing tract, and that critics deride houses like this as "McMansions." That doesn't matter. Its size reaches out to your ego in ways you don't even care to explore. You're jonesing for this house.

Of course, there's the price tag. You worry that you'll have to live like a monk to afford the $2.55 million for this particular floor plan. The down payment alone is the equivalent of a decent house in many places. Still, you linger in this model named, for no apparent reason, the Delcado. It sits in a gated 29-house tract called MonteVerde (green mountain), just below the usually golden Santa Monica Mountains in Tarzana. You can understand why so many buyers, often moving up from comfortable but relatively cramped homes, are cashing in their equity-rich hovels for these mini-castles ranging between 4,800 and 6,600 square feet. You've convinced yourself that all this space is necessary. Even if you can't fill all the cupboards, there's power in having more than you can use.

Excess is just part of the lifestyle in places such as Braemar Estates, Beverly Ridge Estates, Royal Oaks Colony and Lake Sherwood Country Club--tracts where these mega-houses elicit the image of wealth and exclusivity in groupings of between 30 and 350 homes. Tony Truisi, an Encino real estate agent specializing in what he calls "upper high-end" homes, says "there's a big market in this part of L.A.--houses running between $1 million and $3 million--that's a hot market right now. And that's unbelievable to say, huh?"

Actually, yes. But so-called mcmansion communities are rising all over Southern California and elsewhere in the country even as the economy grows less and less certain. According to the California Assn. of Realtors, the number of homes in California that sold for more than $1 million rose 46% between 2001 and 2002.

While rising property values account for part of that, the proliferation of these massive homes through the 1990s also was fueled by the booming economy, the rise in home equity as real estate prices soared and the persistent equation of square footage with status. According to the National Assn. of Home Builders, the average home in the United States in 1987 was 1,905 square feet. Now it's up to 2,324 square feet, while 4% of homes on the Pacific Coast are between 4,000 square feet and 5,000 square feet. A corollary trend is equally telling. During that same period, the average lot size shrank from 17,600 square feet to 12,910 square feet.

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., compares the recent trend toward larger homes to the 1950s migration to post-World War II suburbs. He calls McMansion buyers "kind of the new middle class. It's the 21st century version of Levittown, which used to be the brass ring of people in the 1950s."

"If you look back over the last 30 years or so," says Robert Frank, a Cornell University economics professor, "virtually all the gains and wealth have gone to the people at the top of the income ladder. And as a result of that, those people have been doing what people always do when they get more money--they buy more stuff and bigger stuff. Houses are on the list. So they build bigger, and that seems to shift the frame of reference for people just below the top. If people just above them are building bigger, then they feel they have to build bigger too."

Having the time and money to build your own home used to be one of the perks of wealth. McMansion buyers, by contrast, are the working wealthy. Many of them labor long hours to pay the massive mortgages on their massive houses. For them, it's more practical to buy a previously designed place that projects an aura of wealth, prestige and personal achievement--off-the-rack opulence, if you will--rather than create a unique architectural symbol of high culture and refinement. If you want individuality, you can always sink some bucks into unique landscaping or remodel that useless formal dining room into a private pool hall.

With a ready-to-build tract mansion, some of which even come furnished, Truisi says, "you can put a deposit on a house, the builder will have the house done within six months, and you're moving in with your suitcases and that's it. Very easy."

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