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Size of Average American House Doubled Since 1950s

Despite having ever-smaller families, the size of the average American house has doubled since the 1950s.

The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s; it now stands at 2,349 square feet. Whether it’s a McMansion in a wealthy neighborhood, or a bigger, cheaper house in the exurbs, the move toward ever large homes has been accelerating for years.

Consider: Back in the 1950s and ’60s, people thought it was normal for a family to have one bathroom, or for two or three growing boys to share a bedroom. Well-off people summered in tiny beach cottages on Cape Cod or off the coast of California. Now, many of those cottages have been replaced with bigger houses. Six-room apartments in cities like New York or Chicago have been combined, because upper-middle-class people now think a six-room apartment is too small. Is it wealth? Is it greed? Or are there more subtle things going on?

[...]

Robert Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University, says the growth of big houses is not really about greed. It’s all about context. If you live in a village in Africa, even a modest American house seems huge. But in the United States, there are now millions of people with lots of money, and their wealth shifts the frame of reference for those just below them.

So let’s say you want to find the best school district for your child, but the houses there are huge and expensive. You might take fewer vacations, endure a much longer commute, save less. But you don’t forgo the bigger house, because it means a better neighborhood and a better education. This is a deeper phenomenon, Frank says, than keeping up with the Joneses.

I think that’s right. My wife and I live, with two dogs and two cats, in a four bedroom house built in 1964. The kitchen has been completely remodeled, as has one of the three bathrooms. No doubt, several sets of occupants raised families here. Yet, having combined two households, we find that the closets are tiny and there just isn’t enough room for all the “stuff.”

We simply live much different lives, economically, than was the case even a generation ago. My family had a single car most of the time I was growing up, for example; now, it’s almost unheard of for every driving age member of a middle class family not to have their own. Most men probably had two suits, one blue and one grey, until recent years; now, those of us who still wear them have a closet full. Going out to restaurants used to be something one did on special occasions; now, most of us do it several times a week.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    I have no evidence other than anecdote, but I suspect this average is skewed by a relatively small percentage of people in those so-called McMansions… I and my family of 4 are comfortable in our ~1850sqft house – it is one of the smaller ones on the block, tho.

    I think the main driver for the growth here is the drive to give children their own rooms as early as possible. There’s probably some social dynamic there, but I haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning to run it down… :-)

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  2. Gollum says:

    This strikes me as another example where instinctive drives coupled with affluence lead to unhealthy excess, much like what happens when sugar, fat, and salt (all of which we need but which over all but our most recent existence have been rare finds) are cheap and widely available.

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  3. Rick DeMent says:

    and all of this while the size of the actualt family has been falling. Interesting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  4. vnjagvet says:

    There is a cycle for these things. During the teens and twenties in the last century, the average home was quite a bit larger than it was after WWII when there had been a severe housing shortage creating demand met by Levitt and others building 750-1200 sq ft tract houses in the northeast and California.

    Once the pent up demand was met, houses began getting bigger. That trend continued from the 1960s until today.

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