American homes keep getting bigger

There was a time during the Great Recession when it looked like Americans were rethinking their mega-homes, reining in their budgets and ambitions and love of the three-car garage.

That moment has passed. Census data released last week on the characteristics of new single-family housing construction confirm that the median size of a new pad in the United States is bigger than ever.

In 2013, the median size of a new single-family home in the United States was 2,384 square feet (the average, not surprisingly, was tugged even higher by the mega-mega home: 2,598 square feet). That median is above the pre-crash peak of 2,277 square feet in 2007, and it dwarfs the size of homes we were building back in 1973 (median size then: 1,525 square feet).

With the exception of a few economic downturns since then, we’ve been building bigger and bigger houses ever since.

Historically, this trend runs counter to another demographic pattern: Our homes have been getting larger as our households have actually been shrinking. So the long-running American appetite for ever more spacious homes can’t be explained by the need to fit more people into them.

What, then, do we want all of this room for? What’s particularly striking in the Census Bureau’s historic data on new housing characteristics is the growth of what would be luxuries for many households: fourth bedrooms, third bathrooms, three-car garages. Notably, demand for all three dipped during the recession in parallel to the temporary drop in new housing size.

In 1973, 23 percent of new homes had four bedrooms or more. Today, 44 percent do. In 1987 (when this data was first collected), 12 percent of homes were built with at least three bathrooms. Now 33 percent are. Since the early ‘90s, three-car garages have grown from 11 percent of the market to 21 percent.

These numbers are not a reflection of all U.S. housing stock. Rather, they only reflect trends in new construction, and only new construction among single-family homes. Apartment buildings aren’t included. But as new housing comes to replace the old, these historic figures capture broad changes in how Americans want to — and think they can afford to — live (with no small amount of help from the home mortgage interest deduction).

Right now, high-end homes are driving new single-family construction. And so perhaps these numbers will scale back some as the housing market continues to recover for families who can only offer smaller down payments and have dreams of more modest homes (families who, today, face a harder time getting a mortgage). It seems unlikely at this point, though, that the housing crash fundamentally altered the long-term trajectory of the ever-expanding American home.

The breakdown

Median size of a new single-family home built in 1973: 1,525 square feet

Median size of a new single-family home built in 2013: 2,384 square feet

Share of new single-family homes with 4 bedrooms or more in 1973: 23 percent

Share of new single-family homes with 4 bedrooms or more in 2013: 44 percent

Share of new single-family homes with 3 bathrooms or more in 1987: 12 percent

Share of new single-family homes with 3 bathrooms or more in 2013: 33 percent

Source: Census Bureau

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