McMansions may become the dinosaurs of the housing industry as small houses begin to trend big. As Americans try to live simpler, small spaces are big winners, with some even choosing to live in houses the size of some walk-in closets.
Industry professionals say the trend is tied to the downturn in the economy as well as a desire for a less cluttered lifestyle that can benefit the environment.
“We are seeing a trend toward more economical homes, energy-efficient homes,” says Michele Boggs, Interior Design Instructor at The Art Institute of Indianapolis. “Since foreclosures have been high, you are seeing people get back to what they really can afford and abandoning the concept of keeping up with the Joneses.”
Among the FDIC’s facts on foreclosure: every three months, 250,000 families enter foreclosure; and 43% of American households spend more than they earn annually.
“People are finding that living simply is actually a luxury,” says Jay Shafer, founder and designer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. “Paying a debt for 30 years is not the great thing it’s been touted as. The easiest way I’ve found to be free is to live simply.”
Shafer is one of the people opting to live in a smaller home. His company offers ready-made homes — or plans to build them — in two categories: tiny houses and small houses. The tiny houses range from 65 to 140 square feet and small houses are a little larger. The tiny houses are on wheels and can be used pretty much anywhere, or placed on an RV. All tiny houses and small houses have kitchens and bathrooms.
“The trend was going bigger for quite a few decades until a couple of years ago when things peaked and for the first time in many decades things did get smaller,” Shafer says. “I think the days of bigger for bigger’s sake are probably over. It seems like the emperor has been spotted.”
According to the National Association of Home Builders, median square footage for a new construction home in the United States declined for two consecutive years after peaking in 2006 at 2,237 square feet. Contemporary homes still are a lot bigger than they used to be -- the 2008 median of 2,224 dwarfs 1978’s median of 1,650. But there are reasons to think new homes will continue to get smaller.
The National Association of Realtors found that in 2009, the number of first-time home buyers reached the highest market share on record. For total home sales, the number of first-time buyers was 47%, up from 41% the previous year.
“There are a lot of first-time home buyers in the market right now,” Boggs agrees. “They have less to spend, but still want a great home, with better options. Builders are offering smaller plans with more upgrade options.”
Some might assume that the lack of options are one of the downsides of living in small houses, but Shafer and others say that’s not true. Small houses can have more personality than the recently popular McMansions.
John Raabe is owner and designer of CountryPlans homes, with a website that supports home owners, designers, and buyers with smaller home plans and building ideas. He says the classic, smaller homes are ideal for updating and redesigning because they provide a simple structure and the basics for a living space.
“Large mega houses are often not so much an expression of personality as ego,” he adds. “The ego expressed may be that of the builder or owner — in a McMansion — or the architect. It is actually harder to build a large house with warmth and personality.”
Small houses and spaces can still present some design challenges, especially with interior design and decorating. Boggs says that small home buyers must maximize their space – a challenge that qualified interior designers can handle. There are also designers who specialize in creating furniture pieces that decrease clutter, making them perfect for small houses.
Verena Lang, founder of Ivydesign, designed a table that doubles as a wall mirror or picture frame. She says she wanted to create a piece that could provide more than one function.
“The main intention was to create something useful with a young and fresh spirit, something that people can individualize,” she adds. “It is important to [think] about things you might find in almost every apartment and things everybody needs like a bed, a table, chairs, a closet, a door for example.”
But even with the recent changes, will buyer tastes flip again and return to the bigger-is-better sentiment? Boggs thinks small spaces are here to stay.
“I think buyers are going to be smarter and more experienced on their design decisions, which will result in smaller, more organized homes,” she predicts. “Spaces will be used more efficiently and the trend will continue to evolve for less formal spaces within a home.”
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