Small House, Bad Economy?


Digging through the backed-up pile of magazines and professional journals this weekend, I came across something that's a few months old, but as near as I can tell little noted elsewhere, from the June issue of Governing magazine. The article by Alan Ehrenhalt, called "The Bungalow Bind," is built on the research of a pair of urban planning professors at the University of Virginia, William Lucy and David Phillips. They've done research indicating strong links between economic stagnation and the years during which most houses in an area were built–the most interesting result being that

Some suburbs were getting richer, and some were getting poorer. But the ones losing ground the fastest had a common characteristic: middle age. They were composed largely of homes built after World War II but before 1980.

By the time they had finished their research, Lucy and Phillips had studied a total of 2,586 suburban communities in every region of the United States. All they needed to know was the decade in which most of the houses were built, and they could pretty much predict what had been happening to income.

After considering, and rejecting, a bunch of other possible explanations, detailed in the full article, Lucy and Phillips concluded:

The real issue was something remarkably simple and easy to measure: the size of the houses themselves.

In 1950, the average size of a new home built in America was a little more than 1,100 square feet. In some of the suburbs sprouting up on farmland just beyond the big cities, it was even smaller. The first houses in Levittown, on Long Island, all built in 1950, had an average size of less than 800 square feet.

Those numbers changed relatively slowly over the next couple of decades. Throughout the 1970s, the average size for new homes was still just 1,375 feet. But then it began to take off. In the 1990s, it passed the 2,000-square-foot milestone. By 2002, it was up to 2,114.

The American middle class simply wants more space. And the suburban landscape is burdened with a huge supply of undersized, middle-aged houses that don't match the lifestyle choices of families in the 21st century. As Lucy and Phillips say in their new book, Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, "the more extensive these small-house areas, the more at risk these neighborhoods were to deterioration."

Urban planners, take note: people want room to live. Full article.


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  1. What’s standard libertarian thinking on planning? People should be allowed to build wherever they can afford land? Or what?

  2. A lot of those poorer, downtown neighborhoods become the artsy, trendy parts of town, then gentrification occurs, the prices go up, the artists move out and people move back out to the suburbs.

  3. That explains the not uncommon practice of knocking down olde bungalows and building McMansions on the same lot. The end result is you get about a 5-foot strip of grass between the houses. But since your fat kids never leave the house anyway, no problemo.

    My parents live in a subdivision built in 1970. The last 10 or 15 years you can feel it slipping from upper middle class to lower middle class. Although it’s in Dayton which has all teh economic vibrancy of Warizistan so that’s probably a factor as well.

  4. What about peoples’ irrational attraction to historic neighborhoods? You’ll find neighborhoods built in the 20s doing very well, with relatively small square footage houses.

  5. dead_elvis, I’d imagine that the people moving in there are young, childless professionals. If it’s just 2 people, under 1000 sq. ft. is great. But with kids, you have to be loaded to move into those neighborhoods.

  6. Let’s see:

    1) Americans have shown a desire and ability to own larger houses.

    2) Smaller houses thus have less relative value.

    3) People lower on the economic ladder then buy the smaller, more affordable houses.

    I sure am glad someone pointed this out to me. I mean, who’d a thunk it?

  7. Totally off topic, but this has to be about the funniest thing ever, at least the funniest thing ever associated with Lieberman:


    In other words: Lieberman’s political party of one takes its first steps towards kicking Lieberman out of the party. lol.

  8. The article mentions just that the housing built between the 50’s and 60’s showed the strongest correlation between house size and economic decline. But what about the decade preceding that or even pre WWII housing? That housing was consistently smaller than even those suburbs from the 50’s and 60’s.

    I think the point to be derived here isn’t that larger is always better, its that these first ring/early second ring suburbs that were all built at roughly the same period of time suffer from some connection that makes them more prone to suffer from economic swings.

    The solution is NOT, then – build bigger houses and that’s that. Yes people want as much space as they can possibly afford, that is a point thats never up for debate. But increasingly people DONT want to drive 2 hours each direction just to go to work.

    And just as there has been a downtown “boom” over the past decade or so, who is to say that there won’t be a first ring suburb boom in the next one?

  9. Perry–

    It’s happening. Just one data point, but look at the inner ‘burbs of Atlanta. Decatur’s gentrification is pretty much complete. East Point and Hapeville are coming up next.

  10. Studies like this one are always a snapshot at one point in time (now) and do not have much predictive power.

    Over the coming years I suspect we will see a trend towards smaller residences in much of the country as energy prices continue to rise, commutes continue to get longer, property taxes go on up, and a general revulsion towards the era of the McMansion grows. Just like the decline of the mega-SUV, there will be a trend away from giant wasteful houses and towards more community-oriented “new urbanism” however much that will suck too.

    And as the housing bubble deflates lots of people will want to both downsize and be seen as virtuous for doing so (rather than fleeced and beaten).

  11. My last house was built in 1933. It had around 800 square feet. Soon, someone purchased two houses on next to my house, consolidated the property, tore the houses down and built one larger house. The building contractor told me that the new owner wouldn’t want to believe people could live with only one sink in the bathroom.

    Then my neighbor on the other side sold his house. I had two choices: sell my house to the same buyer or wait till my neighbor’s other neighbor sells his house and I would get sandwiched between two McMansions and see my property value plummet because nobody would be able to combine my property with another. I sold. Since then, I’ve been living in a much more spacious apartment. I don’t think I’d be house owning anytime soon – compared to apartments it’s too much trouble, and I don’t think I’ll ever get as attached to an apartment than to a house I own.

  12. One factor that’s not mentioned is the rather poor quality of the houses built in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. Most only have a designed lifespan of 50 years or so, and are falling apart. They only seem well built compared to todays housing stock. Back in the 80’s it appears that developers realized that if you can only build 100 homes in a patch the only way to maximize the profit on the homes was to build them with more square feet. People only live in about 1200 sq feet, and the rest ends up being huge empty stairwells or formal living rooms and dining rooms, at least to judge by what I see in the Pittsburgh area, and in central NJ, my previous home. I’ve been looking to buy new but can’t find a builder willing to go for anything smaller than 2000 sq ft, unless I pay for the bigger house. So I’m faced with the choice of buying a huge poorly built house with lots of wasted space far from anything like shopping, resturants, cultcha’, etc, or buying a place that’s falling apart, surrounded by people who’ve never read a book the whole way through.

  13. plunge:

    Absolutely hilarious! Thanks for the great link.

  14. dead_elvis & FingFangFoom,

    I live in a neighborhood of 1000 sq ft homes built in 1920. Property values here are through the roof. Our block is crawling with kids. More families with kids here than childless professionals. On my side of the street, next door to me is a childless couple, a few doors down there is a single lady with no kids. Other than them, everybody on my side of the street has kids, although some of them are grown and have moved out.

  15. Most tract homes built in the ’60s and ’70s are absolute shit construction. They are charmless boxes of crap and they average 1,500 square feet. The difference in construction quality even from ’50s tract homes is remarkable. (I’ve lived in both, and own a 1978 house today that I should’ve bulldozed rather than replace it piece by piece.)

    Pre-WWII neighborhoods are attractive to urban yuppies because they’re pleasant to live in and the houses have character and are built to last. Certain well-constructed ’50s tract homes (the sort of California ranch-style worshiped in Sunset Magazine) are still loved and still expensive as hell, but in general tract homes are disposable shit. The recent construction *looks* better at the moment, but in 10 years they’ll all be falling apart and falling behind the new, new tract homes, which will be 10,000 square feet (on 10,000 SF lots) with granite roofing and no windows, just flatscreens on every wall.

  16. This could actually be used to support strict control of development.

    Why? Because a community allowed to be built up at once is going to be in a worse position than a community which opened areas to development gradually over several decades.

    The neighborhood I grew up in was largely made up of typical 1960s/1970s New England raised ranches on 1/3rd acre plots.

    About 10-15 years ago, some woods adjoining this neighborhood were dug up and turned into a few more streets of homes. These are more modern, larger, and generaly on smaller plots.

    Similar growth has happened in other parts of town. The center of the town has the usual big old Victorians, mostly turned into commercial office space. Outside of that area homes are older than my neighborhood, but generally smaller. Other areas are like my neighborhood, but with somewhat larger homes.

    Now, I’m not saying this pattern of development was planned. But it has worked out well. So communities with open space might want to consider ways to stretch it out, so that they won’t get stuck with an architectural monoculture that becomes undesirable.

  17. Another thought that comes to mind is that it might not be just the size involved, but the style.

    Some of those mid-century homes were, frankly nasty. Wonky little windows, nasty siding, etc.

    Someone might well not want such a thing, who would be happy buying a home of the same size which is a nice little cottage, maybe with some craftsman-style details.

  18. Houses built between 1950 and 1980 were probably the ugliest that America has built: the ranch house. Straight, flat, Split-level, crappy-siding, obnoxious adornments, colors, mix of textures/facafes. Good riddance.

    Before 1950, you had the real bungalows, farm houses, cottages, etc. After 1980, house built a lot more vertically, and spent much effort to look at the past.

  19. “Before 1950, you had the real bungalows, farm houses, cottages, etc. After 1980, house built a lot more vertically, and spent much effort to look at the past.”

    amen, i’m somewhat of a bungalow enthusiast since i bought my own. 1921 chicago-style. bungalows get a bad rap from the more modern era crap.

    when my wife and i bought our house, we looked at a newer (5 y/o at the oldest) subdivision close to her school in sprawling suburbia. the siding was separating, windows falling apart – it was a joke and the price tag was more than the home we bought.

    without old sturdy bungalows, i could never afford a 2500 sq ft all brick house.

    i figure anything significant that could have gone wrong due to shoddy construction, probably would have by now.

  20. downstater,

    How do you have a 2500 sq ft Chicago bungalow? You must be counting a finished basement and some sort of second story work, like a dormer, yes?
    As originally built, they have 900-1200 sq ft.

  21. Having grown up in an early ’70s West Coast ranch house, that is what I think of as “normal.” Construction? Eh, not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than most of the crap they’re putting up now.

    Downsides of those charming old homes? Old foundations. Decades of questionable and decaying wiring. Closets designed for couples who each owned three outfits. Dinky bathrooms. Window units.

    BTW, Phil-Z, you are dead-on right about the amount of wasted space in a lot of the newer barn-like McMansions. That said, people should buy whatever they want and can afford to buy. But I can’t imagine having a 3,000+ sq.ft. home unless I could pay to have someone else clean it. My wife and I don’t even have enough spare time to properly clean the crappy little apt. we live in.

  22. What’s standard libertarian thinking on planning? People should be allowed to build wherever they can afford land? Or what?

    Davids… why would that even be libertarian thinking? That should be ‘reality based’ thinking. Your alternative is the government trucks us all into camps and puts us in bungalows, the sizes of which are determined by some council or board which takes family size, current asset holdings and personal property into account?

    You see where I’m going with this?

    My guess is, what you’re really trying (and failing) to ask is, should people be able to build anywhere under any circumstances, zoning be damned.

    Some libertarians might say “yes”, but others might say “it depends.”

  23. I haven’t R’ed TFA, but it would appear that they are confusing cause and effect.

    The difference between the prosperous communities, and the declining ones, is that homeowners and develodpers stopped building in the declining ones in the 1980s. The question is, WHY did they stop building new homes, or enlarging existing homes, in the 1980s? Because something made those communities unattractive for housing investment.

    If they were still attractive places to build, then there would have been new (read: larger) homes built there after 1980, and people would have replaced or expanded many of the smaller post-war homes.

  24. highnumber,

    yes, a finished attic area (front & back dormers). it added two bedrooms, a common area and a full bath.

    basement is finished if you count cheap paneling and orange shag carpet from the previous owners as “finished”.

  25. Jon H,

    “Why? Because a community allowed to be built up at once is going to be in a worse position than a community which opened areas to development gradually over several decades.”

    Jane Jacobs wrote about the same problem in “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” in regards to urban renewal. Diversity of age is important because it brings with it diversity of cost, which produces diversity of business types. And also, so that the neighborhood doesn’t end up with all of its buildings getting run down at the same time.

  26. I am hoping for less housing regulation. If Treehugger.com is any clue:
    there is going to be a revolution in design and demand for ‘different’ housing options. Too much regulations and subsidizations will only get in the way.

    This consumer will be looking for a wisely designed net-zero energy home. And currently lives a in a 900ft^2 70’s crappycondo which was actually built relatively well. I’d love to tear out the shifting crumbling interior walls, and go for a Japaneseish interior, but I don’t think the Condo Assotiation will let me. 🙁

  27. downstater,

    I’m nosy because I live in a bungalow. The only work that has been done to ours is a florida room at the back. Everything thing else is original. Long term, we would like to add an upstairs master suite. Did you have the work done, or was it done before you moved in? Costs, timeframe, etc?

  28. sorry (but thankfully for us), but it was done before we bought the house. so i don’t know how long it took or costs involved.

    i’m inferring that it wasn’t TOO expensive as the previous owners were an elderly couple who didn’t do too much to the rest of the house. i’ve been told by neighbors that it was redone after their grandson fell asleep with a cigarette and the fire/smoke required the renovation.

    i wish i could be more help.

    i think ambungalow.com may have some resources.

  29. Another bad effect the 50s through 80s had on the housing stock: all those Victorians and bungalows that got the charm beat right out of ’em. One of the things I hate the very most is to see Victorian and Craftsman era homes that have been stuccoed. Gross. I want to go after them with sledgehammer. I’d rather see vinyl siding than stucco on a bungalow.

  30. Thanks anyway, ds. Chicago holds a bungalow exposition every year. I attended it once. Very informative. If you’re in the area, it is worthing checking out if you own any sort of older home even though it is geared towards bungalows. I learned about these custom made storm windows that allow you to keep the original windows. Super cool. Our windows are 86 years old. Since they’ve made it this long, we don’t want to tear them out, but they provide about as much insulation as a sheet of newspaper.

  31. van,

    Many bungalows were originally stucco. My 1920 bungalow is on a block of original stucco bungalows. Stucco is superior to bricks. Do not confuse a product like Dryvit with real stucco.
    And please do not take a sledgehammer to my house.

  32. joe writes: “The difference between the prosperous communities, and the declining ones, is that homeowners and develodpers stopped building in the declining ones in the 1980s. The question is, WHY did they stop building new homes, or enlarging existing homes, in the 1980s? Because something made those communities unattractive for housing investment.”

    It’s possible that no construction was done because the town was effectively full, and nothing new could be built without tearing something down.

  33. There was ‘crap’ built in every decade. The older junk got knocked down (or fell down)(except for ‘historic presevation), so older houses that are left are probably better built.

  34. True enough, George, but there was certainly a lot more crap built at higher price points.

    I predict that a similar study, done in 2030, will find exactly the same thing, except that the time frame will be exapanded to include the 50s – 2010s.

  35. Highnumber, I never would have guessed. But I suppose that does explain why some stucco bungalows look like the stuff was poured on their exteriors to cover up a mess and others look relatively nice and smooth.

    I would never vandalize another’s home, so no worries.

  36. How much good farmland and grazing land will continue to be chewed up to build these McMansions anyway? The more the better perhaps – might help solve America’s obesity problem.

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