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.