The McMansion, subject of this month’s cover story, (“Is the McMansion Dead?”) still causes a stir among consumers whenever it is broached. All over the country, blogs devoted to housing issues attract pages and pages of opinions about the bloated residences and how they’ve destroyed the character of the communities in which they’ve sprung up. Online articles garner hundreds of comments from readers eager to share their horror stories of neighborhoods ruined, property values decimated, and sensibilities offended by over the top houses.
So what is it that people hate so much about McMansions? One answer can be found in my favorite online description of one: “The house has to have an impressive double entryway. ... Upon entering, there has to be a sweeping two-story foyer and a broad staircase rising up to the second-floor landing. … Crown moldings are all over, but chances are [they were] installed by the homeowner’s wife’s brother who is a cop/fireman and does home improvement on the side. The poorly mitred corners speak for themselves. There has to be the obligatory Palladian window, several reverse gables, some geometric-shaped protuberance, which is to pass as a tower or turret for this castle. And let’s not forget the plastic snap-in grilles! … The newer McMansion owners haven’t the money yet for the $10,000 European import stove and furniture, so chances are they have a stove that costs more than their first car and little or no furniture.”
But that’s just the anecdotal version. For a more scholarly take on what makes a McMansion offensive, a survey conducted by the Institute of Environmental Quality and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology quantifies how people feel about starter castles. Survey participants indicated that the style of a large infill home did not have to be the same as other houses on a block, but it did have to “fit in.” And they did not mind if houses were large, they simply disliked homes that were significantly larger than other houses on the block. The bottom line is, from either the blog description or the survey results, the problem with McMansions is not about size. It’s about design, and proportion, and construction quality.
During the boom, municipalities from New Jersey to California passed ordinances outlawing McMansions. But it was the recession that, for the most part, halted their march. The number of infill spec homes under construction dropped precipitously in the last two years, and many builders turned their attention to the only home buyers who were lining up in any numbers, the first-timers.
Does that mean the McMansion is gone forever? Those who say it is cite statistics that show house sizes have declined nearly 10 percent since 2007 and family size is decreasing, along with the fact that people want more energy-efficient homes. Those who say people will always buy bigger houses if they can get them point out that houses have shrunk in past downturns, too, and each time, their size quickly escalated once the economy turned around.
Builders and buyers alike often get hung up on house size because they believe that square footage is the most effective way to increase the value of a home. Many builders say that as the price of land increases, the size of the houses they build must increase as well in order to recoup their costs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Architect Ross Chapin, whose work has been featured several times in the pages of Builder because of his ability to create wonderful communities, has built a business around designing small, finely crafted homes. And when I say small, I mean really small, some only 650 square feet. But Chapin’s homes sell for about $615 per square foot in the Seattle area, where the median price last year was $215. You don’t have to build homes this small, though, to realize the same sort of premium. The idea, and the profits, are scalable.
So, is the McMansion dead? That’s up to you.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Seattle, WA.