The Housing Chronicles Blog: The end of the 'McMansion?'

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The end of the 'McMansion?'

When my younger brother was recently visiting for the holidays, he was expressing disdain for a well-known film producer with an enormous home measured in the tens of thousands of square feet. In the interests of family peace, I decided not to remind him of his own 4,000-square-foot, 3-level McMansion on a 1/3-acre plot of land near Philadelphia, which he now admits is much more home than he needs for a family of four.

But I think he's onto something -- having experienced the associated costs with owning and maintaining a large home, the housing bust is now having an impact on the very design of homes. Since it stands to reason that builders must innovate if they expect buyers to purchase new homes rather than the perfectly good 3-year-old homes built by the same companies, what might new homes look like over the next few years? A story in the L.A. Times ponders the question:

...History hints that this downturn could change our tastes. Homes built in the 1940s and '50s, for example, were usually smaller and simpler than large, frilly Victorians that had been in style before the Great Depression and World War II. Materials remained scarce for years after the war, and returning veterans, boosted by mortgage assistance provided under the GI Bill of Rights of 1944, bought Levittowns full of simple new houses as quickly as they could be made.

Virginia McAlester, author of the classic "A Field Guide to American Houses," said that after this recession she expects smaller homes built closer together, but with more attention to their positioning on the lot to better preserve privacy and the occupants' access to a little spot of nature...

"We are going to have far more small houses and attached houses," she predicted. The cost of building the roads, sewers and utility lines to serve compact neighborhoods is lower. Soundproofing will become more important when buyers are living closer to their neighbors or to retail and commercial properties...

Some large suburban houses might be turned into multifamily homes, just as many large homes of the late 1880s and early 1900s were converted into duplexes once lifestyles grew more spare.

"There is actually a pattern of building out there that is called manor houses," she said. From the front, they look like traditional houses, with a single entry. But the structure may incorporate two to five homes within, with separate entries tucked away on the sides of the building. "It's been found to be a way of putting affordable housing into an area," McAlester said.

Certainly that would provoke NIMBY wars and probably require changes to some local zoning laws, but breaking up homes into many units could be a way to preserve values if there aren't enough people willing to bear the burden of big-house upkeep by themselves.

Click here for full story.

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