Courtesy NTHP/Adrian Scott Fine

There’s no shortage of McMansion haters out there. Some are vociferous, but others are stealthy—such as the Florida couple who recently purchased three-quarters of an acre in a neighborhood many consider to be prime teardown territory.

Fellow home buyers in this posh, lakefront part of Orlando, Fla., didn’t think twice about razing and replacing existing homes with new ones more than double in size. But these passive resisters have something more modest in mind for their family of five.

In lieu of a 7,000-square-foot palace that antes up to the neighbors, they’re planning a house less than half that size with energy-efficient features, panelized construction to reduce waste, and a variety of flexible, multipurpose spaces. One of its four bedrooms will double as a guest room.

In some ways, it’s atonement for an oversized spec home they owned previously, which they describe as a “cavernous” place with rooms that were seldom used.

“Environmental concerns are one reason for downsizing, but we also want to know what’s going on with our kids,” the husband says. “A smaller house helps facilitate that. When they share space, they are forced to resolve their differences. We have the financial ability to have a larger home, but it doesn’t make sense.”

Chalk it up as another point for the opposition in the McMansion wars.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Efforts to stem the proliferation of monster homes have no doubt reached epic proportions in recent years. But the battle lines are sometimes fuzzy because the enemy isn’t always clear.

What exactly is a McMansion?

By some accounts, it’s the gargantuan greenfield tract home with a Hummer parked out front that perpetuates sprawl and makes gas guzzling a way of life. Others use the derisive term to describe ostentatious infill homes that—while walkable to schools, shops, and transit—tower over beloved bungalows in established neighborhoods in a way that is less than neighborly.

But different people live by different standards of propriety, and that’s where codifying the offenders becomes difficult.

WASTE REDUCTION: Taller homes are here to stay, but new models will likely be carved up differently inside. Double-height foyers and similar trophy spaces are falling out of favor, because they are too expensive to heat and cool.
Courtesy NTHP/Adrian Scott Fine WASTE REDUCTION: Taller homes are here to stay, but new models will likely be carved up differently inside. Double-height foyers and similar trophy spaces are falling out of favor, because they are too expensive to heat and cool.

“One market’s McMansion is another market’s standard issue house,” notes Robert Lang, former co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech who now heads up the newly minted Brookings Mountain West program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “If you’re in Dallas, 5,000 square feet is the house you buy on a two-faculty salary. But if you are in Boston or San Francisco, this is not a normal-sized house. It’s not fair to come up with a blanket definition. However, every area has its over-the-top houses, and people know which ones they are.”

This may explain why some would-be reformers find it easier to define the essence of McMansion-hood by its antithesis.

Dave Wax, co-founder of the online company FreeGreen (which offers free house plans for small, high-performance homes), defines McMansions as houses that are built to minimum code specifications and saddlebagged with spaces that are used less than 30 percent of the time by their owners. “Like all stereotypes, it’s a term that has no definition and so is inherently unfair,” Wax concedes. “That said, having a bad guy is necessary for any social change. And so the McMansion is the bad guy.”

DOWNSIZE ME

Can the vilified McMansion, in its various forms and habitats, survive a post-recession economy? Many signs suggest the odds are stacked against it. Lending standards have tightened, and many buyers no longer have the cash on hand for down payments on fancy homes. Add to that a U.S. unemployment rate that continues to hover around 9.5 percent and resale competition from foreclosures (many of which are McMansions themselves), and the outlook seems bleak for showy homes that many consider emblems of decadence and greed.

Even for those who can afford them, trophy homes constitute an image problem at a time when modesty has become fashionable. One recent CNNMoney.com poll asked more than 33,000 online readers if they thought American homes had gotten too big; 69 percent said yes.

Demand for big houses could also fizzle as population shifts place families with kids in the home buying minority. Some demographers estimate that up to 80 percent of new households formed over the next 15 years will be child-free as Baby Boomers empty their nests and career-driven Millennials postpone marriage and kids.

NO MORE WASTED SPACE: In 1973, 23 percent of new single-family homes were two stories or more. By 2006, that number reached 57 percent.
Courtesy NTHP/Adrian Scott Fine NO MORE WASTED SPACE: In 1973, 23 percent of new single-family homes were two stories or more. By 2006, that number reached 57 percent.

Arthur “Chris” Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, predicts that as a result, the nation could see a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes by 2025. Household sizes are trending smaller at the same time that household budgets have become leaner. That makes butler pantries and media rooms a tougher sell.

In fact, the residential landscape is already changing. In a recent poll of 500 residential architects by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), only 4 percent of respondents reported that their clients were requesting more square footage in new projects, compared to 16 percent in 2008. A subsequent AIA Home Design Trends Survey found significant decreases in consumer spending on features such as in-law suites, three-car garages, and home theaters. Builders are singing a similar tune, with 90 percent of respondents in a recent NAHB poll indicating plans to build smaller.

So it’s no surprise that American house sizes, which doubled from 1960 to the height of the boom, are now backpedaling. The average house breaking ground in the first quarter of 2009 was 2,335 square feet, down from 2,629 square feet in the second quarter of 2008, according to NAHB figures. Since 2007, median sizes for new single-family homes have fallen nearly 10 percent.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA, Orlando, FL.