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Aug. 13, 2020

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Home sizes keep getting bigger and bigger

As homes increase in size and households get smaller, we want larger rooms and more storage space

By , Columbian Business Editor
Published:
11 Photos
This new house in Brush Prairie includes a great room and a first-floor office/guest room, two popular features in new homes.
This new house in Brush Prairie includes a great room and a first-floor office/guest room, two popular features in new homes. Photo Gallery

A chart drawn from Census Bureau data seems almost wordlessly to tell a story about Americans’ desire for ever-larger homes.

Year after year, from 1973 to 2013, the line showing the average size of a new home shot up, breaking its stride only briefly when the economy turned bad. By 2013, new homes had reached 2,646 square feet, growing more than 1,000 square feet over those four decades. Clark County has followed the trend, with the typical new home just under 2,400 square feet in 2013, though the growth curve is starting to flatten.

At a time when homes have become too expensive for many would-be first-time buyers, the trend of larger houses for fewer people doesn’t seem to make economic sense. But builders see the economics through a different prism: with high fixed costs for land, improvements and fees, it’s tough to build and sell an inexpensive house when something bigger and better more closely matches buyers’ expectations.

Even as our houses grew, our households shrank. Back in 1973, average U.S. household size was 3.01 residents. Forty years later, a household averaged 2.54 residents.

What are buyers of new homes doing with the extra space?

The answer, it turns out, reveals much about how our lives and our priorities have changed over four decades. Generally speaking, we devote more space to our bedrooms, bathrooms, and storage spaces. Instead of separated living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens, builders now offer great rooms that combine all of the above. Home offices or guest/extended family rooms are now common. Yards are smaller, but the space that remains is used more thoughtfully, often with covered outdoor living space.

The bones of today’s homes hide the wonders of our advances in energy efficiency and technology: owners can manage temperature, appliances and security from distant locations using smartphones. Weatherization improvements have greatly reduced energy waste.

We toured three homes from three eras with their owners and two guests: Janice Hall, a real estate agent at Keller Williams Premier Partners and the Clark County Association of Realtors’ immediate past president; and Tracy Doriot, owner of Doriot Construction and president of the Building Industry Association of Clark County. They explained the changes they’ve seen in home design and construction, buyer preferences, and building codes. Here’s what we found.

The 1970s: The Holcomb home

James Holcomb, a broker at Keller Williams Realty in Vancouver, quickly saw the potential of his 1977 home when he was house hunting in 2009, despite its pink cabinets, energy-sucking aluminum windows and proximity to noisy Highway 14. At 1,590 square feet, the home was an average size for its era but feels small in today’s market. Holcomb was drawn to its character, especially the rare enclosed atrium entryway that wows guests and gives the place a Southern California vibe.

Despite its unusual features, Holcomb’s home in the Father Blanchet Park neighborhood is representative of homes of its era. It was built at a time when walls dividing living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens were disappearing. In this home, the kitchen is set off from the large living room only by an island that can be used for eating and cooking. The kitchen is small, as are two of the home’s three bedrooms, closets, hall bath and master bath.

Also typical of its moment in time: a sunken living room floor, which Hall described as a “hip breaker” for people over age 65. Indeed, Holcomb said a guest once suffered a serious fall on the only stair in an otherwise one-level house.

On the plus side, the air-conditioned home is suitable to Holcomb’s hospitable way of life. “I like to have a lot of family and friends over,” he said. He’s had as many as 50 guests in the home. But, he said, “I wish it had bigger bathrooms.”

Holcomb can enjoy the outdoors on his uncovered patio and large fenced backyard. Large grassy side and front yards provide plenty of separation from the neighbors.

As for location, Holcomb likes his easy highway access to downtown Portland and the popular bicycle route that runs right past his home.

He’s invested in some upgrades. He replaced those aluminum windows with more energy-efficient vinyl windows. He’s capitalized on its midcentury charm with a new sharp-looking garage door, and new floor coverings, roof, and siding. He keeps an eye on the home’s resale value and doesn’t mind seeing luxury two-floor houses built just to the north of his own, where they can capture views of the Columbia River and Portland.

Hall says that while the home is smaller than the average new home and lacks features that appeal to many of today’s buyers, it would appeal to entry-level buyers and to those who want something outside the ordinary.

“It’s quirky, which is both good and bad,” she said. “It has unique charm.”

The 1990s: The Williamses home

Chelsea Williams and husband Chris Williams don’t live lightly in their 2,057-square-foot home in east Vancouver’s Sifton neighborhood. The couple have three children, ages 3, 6, and 9, and two active dogs. Chris works for a scaffolding company and commutes to job sites. Chelsea is a stay-at-home mom.

Their home, with a second floor that’s smaller than the ground floor, was built in 1993 and was remodeled by previous owners. It has five bedrooms, including a first-floor master, with one of those upstairs bedrooms converted into an office. Like other homes on its street, the facade is dominated by a double-car garage with a small, uncovered porch tucked behind.

It is, for Chelsea Williams, the ideal home for her family. “I’ve lived in eight houses since my parents’ house, and this is my favorite,” she said. “We looked at 13 houses with the same square footage, and this one had the best use of the space.”

Typical of its era, the home offers more of what Hall calls community space, with an open kitchen and dining area. But the builder wasn’t ready to fully embrace the great room concept: the home’s living room is separated from the common area and serves as a place for the family to watch a large television. The home is on a 6,100-square-foot lot, which gives the Williamses a large backyard with a concrete, uncovered patio.

Doriot said the house and others like it were built during a time of significant transition in home construction. With two floors instead of one, houses like this one allowed for more space on the same foundation, and more efficient use of space than the earlier ranch-style homes. The “thermally broken” aluminum windows gave way to more efficient vinyl-clad windows.

The 1990s marked the beginning of building code changes that improved energy efficiency. For example, 2-by-6 framing replaced 2-by-4, allowing for deeper insulation. (The Williamses’ house has 2-by-4 framing.)

One big downside of 1990s housing: exterior siding was in a transition away from wood, and the composites of the era did not do well in the Northwest’s damp climate. A previous owner replaced the siding on the Williamses’ home. Only later would the industry come up with the concrete and fiber siding that is now standard in home construction, Doriot notes.

Chelsea Williams said she likes her home’s vaulted ceiling and its open kitchen and dining area. She’s come to appreciate the first-floor master bedroom, something she hadn’t expected to like, but wishes that it had its own bathroom. The first-floor laundry room works for her, although it’s too crowded in its cramped location near the garage. The home’s air conditioning, added by a previous owner, was a key selling point. Williams said the couple wouldn’t have bought the home without it.

“We plan to live in this home for a really long time,” she said.

The ’10s: Urban NW Homes

The Urban NW Homes model home in Brush Prairie’s Urban Oaks subdivision fits the profile of the newest homes on today’s market. It has 2,521 square feet of living space that puts an emphasis on first-floor community space, a large master bedroom suite, bathrooms and storage space, and a comfortable covered outdoor living area.

The home is a model, and its three-car garage has been converted to a temporary sales space. Developers chose a large, 7,200-square-foot lot for display. Most lots in the emerging subdivision are 5,500 to 6,000 square feet. The model’s $425,000 asking price is midrange for Urban Oaks.

The Vancouver-based developer emphasizes “healthy homes” that are built with green and nontoxic building materials. Urban NW Homes also puts a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency and technology for managing household operations. Marketing research and anecdotal evidence suggest that while customers want such features in their new homes, they’re unwilling to spend significantly more to eke out more energy efficiency if given a choice of other amenities or a lower price tag. The good news is that today’s building codes mandate high levels of energy efficiency.

“We’ve gotten to pretty much the maximum amount of insulation you can get into a house and make it cost-effective at this point,” said Doriot.

The model home has four upstairs bedrooms and a first-floor room that can be used as an office or a bedroom for guests or extended family — an increasingly sought-after feature. It has three full bathrooms, including a master bathroom with a shower and a soaking tub.

But buyers’ tastes are changing; some are opting for no tubs to make room for larger showers and more counter space. And more buyers are asking for a full bath on the home’s ground floor, said Aaron Helmes, co-owner of Urban NW Homes.

Then there are closets. The master closet is 9 feet by 9 feet, not much smaller than a 1970s bedroom. Hall says her buyers used to be impressed simply if a home had a walk-in master suite closet. Now, for many, it’s “the bigger the better,” Hall said.

The open concept is in full flower in this home, with the kitchen and living area fully integrated, and a dining area tucked to the side. Instead of hiding the kitchen and meal preparation, as older homes did with separated kitchens, “the kitchen has become the centerpiece,” Hall said. “People want to show off their cabinets, their finishes, and their beautiful appliances.”

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