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Why Are American Houses So Big? (theatlantic.com)
43 points by prostoalex 27 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

Isn't the reasonable question more - why aren't all houses big?

I don't want a big house because I don't want to have to decorate a bunch of big rooms and don't have a family to house - but I would quite like a decent amount of land, both for the setback and for gardening, forestry, etc.

For the most part, the downsides to having a large home are primarily financial, secondary effects are environmental (we can probably fix the transport issues, but sprawl actually affects ecosystems).

I mean, if you can afford a big old mansion in Central London you buy it and live in it. It seems to me that all the article is saying is that America is a wealthy country.

... if you can afford a big old mansion in Central London you buy it and live in it.

A very significant proportion of central London mansions are bought by foreign investors specifically not to live in. It's a common form of money laundering.

We can suggest that isn't the reasonable question, going to extremes here, by the observation that we don't just connect all our houses by interlinking corridors to create the "biggest houses" possible (well, ok, some particularly ostentatious americans do pretty much that with mega-mansions, but I would argue that's pretty much obviously conspicuous consumption which is itself an interesting phenomenon).

Put another way, in addition to the obvious considerations: cost, depreciation, heating, etc, shelter and design also provide the ability to bring things together into proximity, emphasise, demarcate and exclude.

Design in houses is the same as in all things: the biggest car is not the best, the biggest desk is not the best, the biggest bookshelf is not the best, the biggest kitchen is not the best.

Or like in computer design, packing things too tightly together is bad, but spacing them too far apart is as well.

Perhaps there is a particular note that American culture has tended off to right of the bell curve in many things on the size scale: biggest food servings, bigger cars, big houses, etc. As the article notes, wealth clearly has SOMETHING to do with it, but there's also clearly something else going on, because people with a lot of money and from other cultures are fully capable of looking at some of those things and judging them as poor/bad.

Taking care of a large home is a lot of work. Unless someone is a stay at home person you're pretty much guaranteed to need a maid every once in a while.

Why a maid? I have a few relatives with very large homes. (one has a pool and tennis court) and none of them have maids.

But also, I've had relatives that were maids, and the places they cleaned weren't always large. More often the owners were just busy people.

Doesn't have to be a full-time maid, it's just a lot of work to do regular deep cleanings of large homes IMO so sometimes you need help, but it definitely depends on your disposition towards that type of work and your time commitments.

That’s me, I’ll make my self busy doing anything if it justifies the maid. I just don’t enjoy that type of work, I loath it quite a bit

What about your privacy and security? That maid is essentially a stranger, wandering around in your house, with a perfect excuse to be poking into everything.

Same lady for 10+ years. I wouldn’t use a service that sends a different person every week. She’s basically family. There is some small effort to keep jewels locked up, my paper work is in safety deposit box. But she does see what’s in our nightstand and our dirty undies. It’s not a big deal, she’s a professional and has discretion. Sounds elitist af but she doesn’t exactly run in the same social circles as her clients so it’s not like she’s out there gossiping about our home life details.

Edit; word of mouth is key. While we have a long term person now, we’ve had some ups and downs in the past. Get people’s recommendations before you hire someone. Two reasons; you’ll know they’re good maids (a lot are not good), also most of their clients have come from word of mouth so if they really screw up/steal their business basically evaporates as word spreads. Likewise if you help them with referrals, they will treat you very well (eg our lady will come over after a dinner party, gathering, etc). You also have to “train” them. Even if they’re good, you have some quirks and preferences they would never guess

I use word of mouth recommendations for finding housekeepers rather than a service. I think a lot of people do it this way. I have cameras around my place anyways but at some point you're just going to have to make your own judgements about the trustworthiness of someone.

Thankfully, professional cleaners are not difficult to find.

It also matters where you live. You can buy a stupifyingly large house in small communities for very little money. Why is a $250,000 old mansion in a rural or non-trendy area more objectionable than a tiny closet in SF or NYC? I’d say it is actually less objectionable and more sane. My job doesn’t require me to live in a metro area anymore and my gf and I are looking at moving to a more rural area and salivating at the home prices. We could live in the huge house that the town’s founder lived in which is on the National Register of historic places for the same price we could buy a horrible small cookie cutter house in the city. I know a lot of HN readers can telecommute and work remotely, don’t be afraid to branch out!

Living in a large house means that you will live in a less dense area. Housing price trends over the last 10 years have shown that most people don’t want that.

I don’t think people go out seeking density. The are avoiding a commute or being near entertainment district etc. It’s likely there are some large houses nearby too. They just require a different budget. But I bet most people would live in them if hey could.

People have different needs at different stages and situations in their lives, but most typically seek opportunity in youth which tends to necessitate density and then later prefer quiet and low density to get away from the horrors, costs and inconveniences of city life.

I don't think you can quite draw the conclusion. Housing price trends over the last 10 years could just as easily show a consolidating job market.

> It seems to me that all the article is saying is that America is a wealthy country.

More like a country with a lot of land.

Directly contradicted by the article.

You can't have one without the other.

Sure, houses in Ex-Soviet countries aren't as big as the ones in the US even though there is a lot of land. But good luck building an American sized house in a Western European country without paying a magnitude of what you would pay for the same amount of land in the US. From the article: “In most European countries, it’s much harder legally to build on unbuilt area than it is here,”. Most of the land is indirectly in use, either as farm land, national parkland or owned by the crown in the case of some countries (UK).

Living now in the US I am confused why houses are so big and yards so small. Well, not confused, it makes financial sense for builders, but a bit sad.

I’d much rather have a smaller house but with a yard I can grow stuff in, or be outside in, than a 3000 Sqft house on a 8000sqft plot.

I don't live in the US, but I hear endless stories about something called a "home owners association" or whatever else that seem to imply that in suburban situations, having substantial amounts of outside space might be pointless because you can't actually use it as you feel fit - e.g. something basic like stacking building materials outside might be considered Unsightly(tm).

So you have to actually go rural to do stuff.

Or is that something that's restricted to only a few special neighbourhoods?

I can't imagine even entertaining the idea of buying a home there. If my neighbour demanded I cut the grass or something daft like that and backed it up with a legal threat I'd either have to move out or just eventually go postal.

> having substantial amounts of outside space might be pointless because you can't actually use it as you feel fit

While front yards might fall onto that, backyards are pretty much off-limits to HOA, unless one does things that inconvenience neighbors, like obstruct their view or keep animals that are noisy.

There are a great many suburban neighbourhoods with no HOA. From what I can tell (at least in the Northeast), they're limited to neighbourhoods of well above median income—I would guess that the houses would probably start somewhere in the 7-800k range (which, in suburbia, probably gets you 5-6k square feet or more), and go up pretty fast from there.

HOAs and their restrictions seem very much to be a form of conspicuous consumption—"we can afford to keep our lawns all precisely the same length, and precisely the same shade of green, regardless of the fact that we're in a months-long drought"—as well as a vehicle for petty tyrants who enjoy enforcing their particular idea of what A Perfect House And Lawn looks like on everyone in their development.

It's very common in some parts of the country. AFAICT it's much more common in the south. There's definitely places in the northern states that have HOAs but it feels much less ubiquitous.

Also, IIRC many/most condos and townhomes often have something like an HOA that serves their common interests and joint expenses.

I've read of cases where people haven't been able to have a neat vegetable garden in their front yard, or xeriscape with a rock/cactus garden. Strikes me as crazy.

American house are big because we are rich and lightly taxed. It’s striking to me that the whole article goes without mentioning the wealth difference between Americans and most Europeans. The gap in household disposable income between the US and France is comparable to the gap between France and Latvia or Chile: https://financialobserver.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017....

Hong Kong has a gross disposable income of 327K HKD [1], equivalent to $41,792 USD. That's higher than every country in that list except the US. Needless to say, Hong Kong houses—fewer than 500 sq ft on average—are nowhere near the size of American houses.

Canada is below France in that table, but Canada has large houses as well—2,200 sq ft, compared to below 1,500 sq ft for France.

[1]: https://www.statista.com/statistics/755874/hong-kong-disposa...

Hong Kong is also 1.5 times the size of NYC with about the same population. It's not quite comparable to other countries with a much lower population to area ratio.

Nevertheless, the average house size in New York City is 1,010 sq ft [1]. In this case, the cultural differences between Hong Kong and the US would seem to dominate.

[1]: https://www.6sqft.com/in-new-york-city-how-much-space-is-too...

To add, HK's land area is orders of magnitude smaller than the U.S. Maybe Americans can simply afford to build on far bigger land given their income.

Right. I would guess the combination of available space and culture dominates income-related concerns. The places with big houses tend to be former British colonies that cover vast territories and feature an individualistic culture: Australia, Canada, and the US.

I wouldn't say, "lightly taxed". I pay over 50% of my annual income in federal, state, and sales tax. I also pay between 1% - 4% of the value of my real estate every year in property taxes, depending on the jurisdiction. Then there are the fees ($1,000 annual vehicle registration fees, for example).

That’s lightly taxed compared to say France, where the 41% marginal rate kicks in around $80,000 and the VAT is 20%.

As a contractor in Poland I pay 19% income tax + about €320 fixed pension fund and health insurance, which are both partly tax-deductible.

There's of course VAT, but Americans have sales tax, which is lower, but significant.

All in all taking into account average VAT paid per month my tax rate is 32%.

This is lightly taxed.

This is all very wrong. You don't count income in brackets, and tax deductions correctly.

1. How the hell is your tax rate so high.

2. $1000 in (annual) vehicle registration fees means you’re driving a sweet car, so I wouldn’t complain. In some European countries you might pay 100% or more of the vehicles sales cost in taxes and fees.

Not the poster but I’d assume that things add up between 37% top federal bracket, 13.3% top California bracket and 10%ish sales tax rate depending on where one lives in the state.

Those are top rates, unclear whether “over 50%” refers to effective tax rate once all deductions are taken care of.

I pay the same, but I (and I assume you) live in the highest taxed state & city in the country. This is very far from what the median American citizen pays.

This doesn't fit because the income range between the country side (where you can have huge houses and lots of land for cheap) vs the city (where a postage stamp house is expensive) doesn't match with income levels. (low in the country vs high in the city).

That would mean that countries with even higher disposable income than the US have even larger houses.

This is evidently not the case.

(I am also not a fan of using averages in terms of comparing income across countries)

Why do you need such a big house, citizen? You can live in a drainage pipe; why do you need more room than this?


Someone should start a magazine for bugmen. It can feature apple products, human habitations barely above tent level and delicious meals made with fried crickets.

I remember seeing towers of tubular pods reported on television as being just around the corner in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Perhaps Beyond 2000? In retrospect it was a fascinating idea for the shock value, and clearly intended (by journalists) to elicit your type of response.

As an adult I now understand that America has always had pods--they're called hotel rooms, and countless families live in low-budget hotels across the country, both urban and rural. A single-wide trailer is just an elongated pod. (I lived in both as a kid.)

I think what Americans really object to isn't the pod, per se, but the fact that they're intended to be densely packed in urban environments. Put that same pod in an idyllic, rural setting and all of a sudden it evokes independence and frugality.

> I think what Americans really object to isn't the pod, per se, but the fact that they're intended to be densely packed in urban environments. Put that same pod in an idyllic, rural setting and all of a sudden it evoke independence and frugality.

This is definitely in line with my thinking (though I'm not American).

I currently live in a small home, approx 40-50sqm. But it's detached, has a bit of land (slightly less than I'd like, but enough to do stuff outside and not feel like you're encroaching on the neighbours).

The problem with urban apartment living is that you're absolutely forced into a ton of negotiations. How loud is too loud - whose wall is whose - who pays for the structure - who owns the land - the list is almost endless. For me, the mental overhead that's just always present is really draining.

I joke, but it's not really a joke.

American dream is not about owning a house, going to school and being more successful.

American dream is about owning a bigger house than your neighbors, having nicer cars than your friends, being visual successful. Most people who will give you a threshold for their financial happiness will become unhappy if all their neighbors exceed them.

Social signaling by wealth is very strong out here. It's true that you can now see it in other parts of the world but it was exported by US to them

This is almost definitely related to the strong consumer propoganda which has been applied so consistently since WW2. If you think what I am saying is ridiculous look at the history of who invented advertising. Edward Bernays was the nephew of Freud and pioneered modern propoganda and advertising methods. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays

"In the 1930s, his Dixie Cup campaign was designed to convince consumers that only disposable cups were sanitary by linking the imagery of an overflowing cup with subliminal images of vaginas and venereal disease."

The new dream is to have more storage lockers than your neighbor. My brother has 2...

I wish I were kidding. Where I live in Colorado, there are acres of self storage, indoor with A/C and outdoor, everywhere these days, with more being built.

What you’re observing is not the American dream. It’s pop-culture in big population centers. Not everyone is competing with their neighbors. Some of us just want comfortable homes and like driving fast cars.

I recall reading some recent stories on how Boomers are having trouble selling their McMansions because Millennial buyers aren’t interested in big houses in the suburbs.

Given the resurgence in urban living, lower birth rates, and higher debt burden among millennials/Gen Z I would predict average home sizes will shrink...

The issue isn't that millennials don't want them, it's that the boomers want half a million for a starter house, and it's completely unreasonable to save up $100k cash for a down payment on a first house when you have student loans, other bills and rent.

Ironically, this all becomes wildly easier after you have the first mortgage, and can leverage the paper equity that rising prices gives you...

Same is happening with antiques as pieces are often to big for increasingly apartment and smaller houses. And seems to be generally less desirable as status goods.

My definition of McMansion is in the urban core. It’s where they tore down the original bungalow or something old and small and erected a suburb sized house. If it’s having trouble selling it’s because of money. Price of the home with high land value or cost of the private schooling that many people with that budget would require.

I’m pretty sure the term McMansion is linked to sprawling suburbs that popped up starting in the late 80s/90s. Ive never heard it used to describe any urban home.

Looks like you’re right. I’ve never heard it used that way. But where I am it’s just understood suburbs are built that way. Nobody calls it a McMansion. We have largest houses in the nation though (I believe). The term came into local use in urban areas (burbs of 50+ years ago) began getting massive houses that consumed every bit of the lot.

Don't count on lower birth rates long-term. Birth rates show decently strong inheritance. The more kids your parents had, the more kids you are likely to have. Changes in our environment, causing the demographic transition, are only a temporary stumble because people are not equally effected.

There are advantages to room besides financial return and social standing. I like having room for bookshelves, and a big desk, and a workshop. I like being able to use power tools or blast music at any volume I want without disturbing the neighbors. I respect your lifestyle choice if "driving 15 minutes to get a gallon of milk" simply isn't convenient enough for you, but for me, bliss is not having to know my neighbors.

Spot on.

To me the "driving 15 minutes to get a gallon of milk" thing is absurd on the face of it because it's missing that urban and rural life are fundamentally different in a lot of ways.

If you live in the centre of a city, it's normal to live a sort of 'just-in-time' lifestyle whereby you just pop to the shops whenever to grab an ingredient, perhaps wander to a cafe for lunch, etc.

In the country it's far more DIY. You have a big freezer / fridge and food stocks and just sort it out. If you want to cut up some wood, build a cabinet, whatever, you don't go to the community space or whatever, you do it on the land.

And if you do go to the store - well you think about what you actually need to buy. The idea that people are burning a gallon of fuel solely to grab milk is absurd, more likely they just do without it until the next time they're in town, or prepare in advance.

I'd like to see stats confirming that rural folks are that efficient with their lifestyles and vehicle / fuel use. One thing to consider is that most rural folks still work regular jobs, and commute to those jobs every day. At my workplace at the edge of town, the main difference between the city and rural folks is how many hours are spent commuting every week.

Sure, so in that case you pick something up on the way to/from work.

I'm not arguing that rural lifestyles have lower transport requirements in their totality - they obviously don't - just that the '15 mins to get X' example is absurd, because it describes a strawman journey that very rarely actually occurs.

Even in my youth living in the suburbs of a small town in the UK you rarely went "in to town" to buy one thing because it's just not worth it.

Does your house have a formal living room and formal dining room? North American houses often have these large rooms that people never use. Most people spend the vast majority of their waking time at home in the kitchen.

but for me, bliss is not having to know my neighbors.

Even as a hard core urbanite, I can get that. For me bliss is having the option to walk everywhere I need to go. But a close second on my list would be living within walking distance of great skiing and/or kayaking and not being able to see my neighbors house from my property.

What I don't get is the weird compromise of being so far out from the city you have to drive everywhere, but not so far that you're actually close to nature, and still surrounded by dozens and dozens of houses within spitting distance of your front door.

There is something to be said about having extra space to reinforce mental fortitude. In the same way a cluttered desk or crowded workspace can provoke a feedback loop that causes a cluttered mind - a safe, familiar living space with plenty of room to pace, store, or host crowds can provide a certain mental clarity.

Add to this the ability to step outside into a wide open environment with a view of a distant horizon. A liberated mind.

Add to this the ability to step outside into a wide open environment with a view of a distant horizon. A liberated mind.

Completely agree with this point, but it also completely separated from the size of your house. You can have a huge house and not be able to see the horizon because you're surrounded by equally huge houses in all directions. Or you can have 500 sq ft cabin on the edge of a lake that is the only building in a 3 mile radius.

This sounds like a symptom of compaction. Or the ratio of land to indoor foot (or meter) space is high enough to block each other's skyline, unless groups are willing to venture outside the entire neighborhood.

But compaction is a preference for some.

I think this is a distinctive cultural affectation. In America, there is a strong historical context that a man's home is his castle, from the earliest history of the country, and in that sense every man can be lord of a small fiefdom. This isn't just theoretical, the rights attached to property ownership are extensive in America, and in some regions asymptotically approaches a practical approximation of sovereignty. In this context, bigger is generally better.

Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but my experience is that Americans view property as "personal sovereignty" to a much greater degree than people in other parts of the world, who view it more as an investment or generational asset. In the US, it comes with the implication of freedom to do your own thing without state interference. (In some parts of the US, this is de facto literal.)

That said, I prefer to live in a relatively small place in the middle of a real city. I don't know how to fill a large house in a way that can be rationalized, though I have owned such houses.

Because of regulations increasing the costs to being building in anti-growth areas, the only thing builders can profitably produce is luxury housing. Many astute observers will point out that cost per square foot hasn't changed much in the past few decades, though the number of square feet has. However, it doesn't seem to align with what many Americans actually want, which is affordable housing.

Those looking to unload their McMansions in the coming years should be forewarned they may not be demand for them: they're often located far from jobs, offer too much space versus the shrinking family size, and demand enormous upkeep. To an extent, remote work might make the first factor more palatable, but the latter two remain problematic.

IMHO 15 minute for milk is a quite an exaggeration. I live in the burbs and there's shopping plazas within 5 minute drive of the entrance of any neighborhood. Plazas are anchored by a major grocery store and other supporting stores (restaurants, services, urgent care) surround it.

I'd agree with the long commute. I'd move closer to work, but I can all but guarantee in a few years I'd find a new job - and I'm not going to move every time I find a new job.

As far as big houses...land is cheap where I'm at (Atlanta suburbs)...so why not? Ranch style homes are expensive by the square foot. It's easy for a developer to add a 2nd story and double your square footage without charging much more for the house. Around here you can dig deeper and get yourself an unfinished daylight basement for ~$40k more. So you can go from essentially a 1 story style ranch home, triple your square footage (basement, main + 2nd floor) for not even double the price for a 1 story home.

Just to give some numbers for my neighborhood w/ the Zillow Estimated price. Neighborhood is 4 years old My neighbor's 1 story ranch: 2400 square feet $322k, My 2 story house: 3400 square feet, $404k House w/ Finished Basement: 4310 Square feet, $513k

My house and the house w/ basement have a 2 story foyers and living room. So basically, we have so much space that the 2nd floor doesn't need to be fully utilized because we like to stare into 30 feet high ceilings.

The actual building materials used to build a house - the lumber, drywall, shingles, etc - are really cheap relative to the cost of upgrading the finishes within the house, as well as the cost of acquiring the land and permits necessary to build (at least in most high demand areas).

And of course with the advent of things like power tools and supply chains that can cheaply delivery (relatively) uniform building materials, the actual process of physically constructing the house is easier than ever.

So, if you're in the business of building homes, one of the most cost effective ways to make the house seem more luxurious is simply to make it bigger.

Also, big houses are not strictly a suburban phenomenon. If you've ever been to a gentrified urban neighborhood it's not that uncommon to see a block where they've torn down almost every 900 sq ft bungalow and replaced it with a 3500 sq ft 3 story box.

I work remotely, which I greatly enjoy. One day a while back I was talking to a co-worker who resides in the UK. (I'm in the central US.)

We were talking about woodworking. I know my friend had just bought a new table saw, I was wondering how things were going.

My friend complained that it took him a long time to setup his saw every time he wanted to use it. It was contained in a small room with several other tools, he had to pick which one to plug in and put in the 'free space'.

I explained I kept my table saw in it's own place, set up in the extra garage. He was stunned that there could be such an extravagance.

I'm sure everybody would have a bigger house (and garage) if the situation allowed it. It's nice. It's only human nature to like such a thing.

Before people get defensive, this is just a bunch of personal observations, not judgement.

I think Americans generally like everything bigger for some reason. When I came to the US from Germany I noticed that everything was much bigger here. Kitchen stoves, fridges, office chairs, food portion sizes, TV sets, beds, candy bars, cars and so on. Not efficient, just big.

I knew a lot of well off people in Germany whose houses were much smaller than what Americans of the same status would be living in.

Not sure why that is but it seems cultural to prefer big things. Maybe it got started in the 50s when American cars were huge just for the sake of it.

I'm from Italy, albeit not from a huge urban area... And I find the 1600sqft number for houses not exactly large, maybe just "normal", if it includes a cellar, an attic, and so on.

Hey, if you speak of standalone houses, that's probably the minimum size here! If you want to go for a smaller size, you'd probably get a flat, or possibly a semi-detached house.

And, personally, I think that a comfortable living with some private space for everyone is hard to achieve in less than 120 square meters for, let's say, a 4-people household. Too much noise, too much clutter.

My parents house was big for one main reason - it was stupidly cheap to build it. 10,000 sq ft on 5 acres of land for under $100k (adjusted to 2019).

My dad worked as a lineman for Ma Bell, and could afford to build it with no mortgage. You can’t do that today.

Because of a lot more habitable land and cheaper locally sourced building materials. Not to mention no minimum wage for construction workers.

Because America is a very wealthy country with a relatively low population density.

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