I often joke with fellow blogger Fred First that “size does matter” when it comes to digital cameras, megapixels and lenses. My Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II is still king of the digital SLR wars at 16.7 megapixels but I’ve resisted the urge to venture into 22 and 40 megapixel-land with medium format. The Canon does just fine thank you.
But I can’t buy into the “bigger is better” craze that currently rules the housing market in my old haunts around Washington, DC, and other parts of the country. These huge homes, dubbed McMansions, dominate the landscape in Loudon and Prince William counties of Northern Virginia and are the big trend in housing (pun intended).
I’m sorry but how much space do you need?
Our first home was a three-story, circa-1835 townhouse with an awesome view of the Mississippi River off the second story back porch. It had 25-foot ceilings, three fireplaces, four bedrooms and cost a ton and a half to heat and cool. We welcomed the efficiency of a 1320-square foot condo when we moved to Arlington in 1981. That two-bedroom flat cost twice as much as the house in Illinois but served our needs for 23 years and sold for four times what we paid for it. Our new/old home in Floyd is more than twice the floor space but not overwhelmingly large yet it seems huge when it comes to furnishing and cleaning it.
So why are thirty-something couples with no or few kids buying 8,500 square foot McMansions in the burbs?
Consider this from The Washington Post:
In the two years since they moved into their voluminous 8,000-square-footer on the edge of Virginia’s suburbs, the Bennett family has not once used their formal dining room, where the table is eternally set for eight with crystal, an empty tea set and two unlighted candles.
Not even guests use the palmy, bamboo morning room beyond it; and the museum-like space Bonnie Bennett calls the Oriental Room — all black lacquer and inlaid pearl, fur, satin and swirling mahogany — is also gloriously superfluous.
“It’s kind of stupid, because we never sit in here,” said Bennett, 32, who bought the largest house she could for the investment.
But she carried around a crumpled photo of the furniture for eight years, and now that she has space for it, she admires it as others might a work of art.
“It’s just me ,” she said.
Or this from the same article:
And so when Alyson Skinner wanted a bigger house on 10 acres in western Prince William County, there it was.
For just under a million — and with the equity from her smaller home — she was able to get more space for roughly the same mortgage payment to accommodate the lifestyle she envisioned for her family. Instead of going out into the world, she preferred to contain the world inside her 5,300-square-foot home.
“We have a media room in the basement, a pool table and a moon bounce, so I don’t have to take the kids out and fight traffic,” said Skinner, 32, a former art director who lives there with her husband; their two children; and, at times, family and friends who come on weekends. “We enjoy it more when the kids come here and play. Specifically, I’m weird, but I’m supersensitive to the kids getting snatched. Like at Chuck E. Cheese, I have to constantly watch them.”
As in many large houses, some of Skinner’s rooms are still empty, while others have essentially become playrooms: The windowed conservatory is an empire of pink toys for her daughter. And on a recent weekday, the family room was strewed with plastic shapes in primary colors.
“Mommy!” said a small voice from somewhere.
Skinner, sitting at the 10-foot granite kitchen island, looked up.
“Where are you?” she called to her daughter.
It is difficult, she said, to make the house feel cozy. And yet, having lived there a while, Skinner has begun to imagine rooms she’d like to add.
“But if your bedroomâ€™s the size of a barn, how cozy can you get?” The question comes from Cathleen McGuigan, writing in Newsweek. “The housing industry says that we want bigger and bigger houses. But I think theyâ€™re not taking credit for their marketing skills. Last yearâ€™s annual report for Pulte Homes, one of the nationâ€™s biggest builders, contains an astonishing fact: if you adjust for inflation, houses of the same size and comparable features are the same price today as they were in the 1970s. That means that if business is going to grow, the industry has to sell more productâ€”not just more houses but more square footage. Itâ€™s like the junk-food-marketing genius who figured out that people wouldnâ€™t go back for seconds but theyâ€™d pay more upfront to get, say, the 32-ounce Big Gulp.”
We’re seeing some of the same thing in Floyd County — huge sprawling homes under construction, often on top of a ridge line, spoiling the view that so many move here to enjoy.
“What is a McMansion? To my way of thinking, it is a not-very-well built house, oversized for the number of occupants, which usually borrows motifs and elements from incompatible architectural traditions,” says Dale Austin at the University of Michigan. “It is ostentatious in its presentation, without the qualities of true value. These sheetrock palaces use the budget materials of tract-home construction to mimic traditionally-built homes.”
Dr. Jennifer Evans-Cowley is an assistant professor with the Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University and says this about the trend:
A 2002 study by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) found that home sizes have been growing in the United States. In 1987, the size of the average new home was 1,900 square feet; by 2001, this had increased by 20 percent to an average of 2,300 square feet.
The percentage of new homes larger than 3,000 square feet has almost doubled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1988, 11 percent of new homes constructed exceeded 3,000 square feet; by 2003, this number had grown to 20 percent. Pulte Homes reports that its average new home is growing by 150 to 200 square feet every few years.
But the bigger is better trend is sparking a backlash. Communities across the country are hastily passing new ordinances to prohibit too large houses on too small lots and are attempting to regulate both size and density of new homes. Here in Floyd County, however, the planning commission talks a lot about dealing with the problem but talk is all they’ve done.
And all too often those who trade up to bigger find it’s not the paradise they expected.
As the Washington Post reports:
George and Georgia Psihas, for instance, have lived in their new, 6,500-square-foot house in Oak Valley for three years without furnishing their dining room and living room.
With Thanksgiving approaching, the rooms were empty last week except for an upright piano and a vacuum cleaner.
“Our thing is we’re damn busy,” Georgia Psihas said.
She and her husband, who have four children, run a home-improvement business out of their home office, the one room that is used seven days a week.
They simply have not had time, she said, to fix up their dream house, much less enjoy it.
“We moved up . . .,” Georgia Psihas said between answering the door and the phone, as if moving up were just one more item on a list of things she had to accomplish. “You know, bigger, better, best, but I don’t know necessarily if bigger is better. I don’t know if I enjoy it more. The only room I ever sit in is the office. Then I go to sleep in my bed. I don’t even know what my bedroom looks like.”