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Hefty appetite for super-size homes

It used to be that bigger houses were built because of need. Now it's more often about desire.

September 03, 2006|Tomoeh Murakami Tse | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Houses built these days are bigger than in years past, but they're on smaller lots. More people are living in the suburbs, although not necessarily in houses with yards. And the typical American home has more bathrooms, more bedrooms and more amenities, yet on average shelters fewer people.

Census data on housing patterns of the last 30 years yields insights into the rate at which the size of homes has grown and the forces driving that growth.

Traditionally, middle-class homeowners have purchased larger houses to accommodate the need for more space -- a growing family, for example. But the last three decades have seen homes grow simply because they can.

From 1975 to 2005, the average size of a new single-family home grew by 48%, according to the Census Bureau's 2005 survey of new housing, released this summer. That happened even as the typical household has gotten smaller, falling from 2.94 people in 1975 to 2.6 people in 2004, the latest figure available. At the same time, lots have shrunk by about 13%.

The desire to trade up has been fueled by the growth in personal income in the 1990s. That put more shoppers in a position to afford bigger homes.

"Americans generally seem to like to super-size everything, whether it's houses or cars or TV sets or hamburgers," said John McIlwain, the senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based research group largely financed by the real estate development industry. So if they can afford it, he said, "more people will buy bigger" even if they don't need it.

Like single-family homes, units in multifamily buildings are bigger too. Over the last 15 years, the proportion of new multifamily units with two or more bathrooms has doubled, as has the share of units with three or more bedrooms.

So, has all this additional space helped make a happier American home?

Perhaps not quite. Twenty years ago, nearly six in 10 homeowners reported high satisfaction in their houses. Last year, five in 10 did.

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