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Smaller Houses: Symptom of the Recession, or Long-Term Trend?

October 26, 2010

The New York Times Magazine [registration required] takes a look at shrinking square footages for new houses and muses on whether this represents a long-term trend or merely a temporary response to the recession.  The crash of the housing market certainly has served to remind people that housing prices don’t automatically keep going up forever…perhaps homebuyers are now more focused on buying an amount of space they can actually use rather than what they think they can sell at a profit (do people still watch those “Flip This House” shows on TV?).

Andres Duany, one of the founders of the “New Urbanist” movement, makes a particularly insightful observation, about buyers’ implicit choices between public vs. private space:

Duany argues that the sprawling homes of the last decade actually met a need, albeit imperfectly, by reproducing internally what suburban communities lacked: an exercise room substitutes for a park, a home theater for the Main Street cinema. Buyers will only accept smaller homes, he says, if their surroundings compensate them.

To this could be added another parallel:  walk-in closets and spare rooms in a large house in an isolated subdivision can be thought of as a privatized substitute for shelf space in a local corner store.  If the grocery store is more than a walk or short drive away, you buy in bulk so you don’t have to make as many trips…but then you need somewhere to store all that stuff.  You become the keeper of the inventory, rather than the store.  Conversely, residents of mixed-use neighborhoods don’t need to stockpile everything at their house because the store is nearby.

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