Can the vilified McMansion, in its various forms and habitats, survive a post-recession economy? Many signs suggest the odds are stacked against it. On the other hand, the question of whether the small-house movement will enter the construction mainstream and snuff out the "more is better" mentality is a subject of nuanced debate.
There is no shortage of reasons backing the argument that supersized, garish McMansions are on their way out. Lending standards have tightened, and many buyers no longer have the cash on hand for down payments on fancy homes. Add to that a distressingly high U.S. unemployment rate and resale competition from foreclosures (many of which are McMansions themselves), and the outlook seems bleak for showy homes that many consider emblems of decadence and greed.
Even for those who can afford them, trophy homes constitute an image problem at a time when modesty has become fashionable. One recent CNNMoney.com poll asked more than 33,000 online readers if they thought American homes had gotten too big; 69% said yes.
Demand for big houses could also fizzle as population shifts place families with kids in the home buying minority. Some demographers estimate that up to 80% of new households formed over the next 15 years will be child-free, as Baby Boomers empty their nests and career-driven Millennials postpone marriage and kids.
Arthur "Chris" Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, predicts that as a result, the nation could see a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes by 2025. Household sizes are trending smaller at the same time that household budgets have become leaner. That makes butler pantries and media rooms a tougher sell.
In fact, the landscape is already changing. A 2009 poll of 500 residential architects by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) found only 4% of respondents reported clients were requesting more square footage in new projects, compared to 16% in 2008. A subsequent AIA Home Design Trends Survey found significant cuts in consumer spending on features such as in-law suites, three-car garages, and home theaters. Builders sing a similar tune; 90% of respondents in a recent NAHB poll indicated plans to build smaller.
House sizes, which doubled from 1960 to the height of the boom, are now ebbing. The average house breaking ground in the first quarter of 2009 was 2,335 square feet, down from 2,629 square feet in the second quarter of 2008, according to NAHB. Since 2007, median sizes for new single-family homes have fallen nearly 10%.