McMansion: A Closer Look At The Big House Trend

By Lisa Smith AAA

From Australia to America single-family houses are getting bigger. A lot bigger. The Australian government reports that the average size of a new house increased by 40% between 1984 and 2003, going from 162.2 square meters (approximately 1,745 square feet) to 227.6 square meters (approximately 2,450 square feet). In America, the National Association of Home Builders reports that the average home size was 983 square feet in 1950, 1,500 square feet in 1970, and 2,349 square feet in 2004. This trend appears to be continuing: house sizes in 2005 (the latest year for which figures are available) averaged 2,434 square feet.

The averages are climbing because they include houses at the higher end of the market, which are growing by leaps and bounds. A 3,000 square foot home is on the small side when it comes to new construction. Anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 square feet is becoming increasingly common. There are even homes in the 10,000+ range cropping up. These giant new homes have earned the nickname "McMansions" because they are often generic in style, packed in close together on postage stamp-sized lots and built quickly - much like the fast-food delivery style the name suggests. However, the derogatory nickname hasn't hurt their popularity.

Not only are the houses getting larger, but everything inside them is getting bigger too. In 2004, around 40% of new homes had nine-foot ceilings. The number of homes built with four or more bedrooms came in at just under 40%. Multiple heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems are becoming commonplace. And two- and three-zone heating systems are becoming a standard feature. Furnishings are also becoming super-sized. From professional-grade stoves and refrigerators to overstuffed, oversized sofas, we're buying everything bigger to fill our mini palaces.

Why?
What makes people want to buy a big house? Because they can! The rich and famous have always enjoyed lavish estates. From the Hollywood Hills to the Hamptons, those who have money have enjoyed the benefits that come with affluence. While those of lesser means may not be able to drop a few million bucks for a giant ranch in Montana or a gated community in Miami, they are surrounded by images of affluence in the media. From the palaces featured in video games and movies to the celebrity house tours on many popular cable television shows, everybody can see how the rich among us live. Add in years of record-low interest rates and aggressive marketing of upscale homes by residential builders and the stage is set for the Joneses - and everybody else - to get their piece of the pie. (To learn more about how interest affects housing, see How Will Your Mortgage Rate? and Understanding the Mortgage Payment Structure.)

What You Get
McMansions are all about interior space. The rooms are big, the ceilings are high and the "wow" factor is too. The amenities that convince people to go upscale include lots of windows, spacious foyers, huge staircases, three or four garages, gourmet kitchens, sun rooms, walk-in closets and enormous master bedroom suites complete with whirlpool tubs and separate showers. Walk-in pantries in the kitchen, laundry rooms, media rooms and home offices also make list. Over-sized garage doors (to accommodate oversized vehicles) gas fireplaces and large decks are also common must-have features.

What You Don't Get
The tradeoff for a luxurious interior often comes at the expense of the exterior. Cookie-cutter designs, tiny lawns, closely-packed neighbors and garish designs that feature garages nearly as big as the homes (earning the dwellings the nickname "garage mahals") are all common features of the suburban McMansion. Expensive brick or stucco on the front of the house with vinyl siding on the sides and back are signature design features, putting an elegant face toward the street and less costly coverings elsewhere. (To learn more cost-saving ideas for your home, see Fix It And Flip It: The Value of Remodeling.)

On the inside, open floor-plans that often include rarely-used formal living and dining rooms are par for the course. While grand looking, large widows, high ceilings, two-floor great rooms, and huge foyers often result in very inefficient - and expensive - heating and cooling. Furthermore, restrictive community associations often limit the ability to add personal touches to the front lawn.

Backlash
From Austin to Atlanta, angry neighbors, zoning boards and politicians are fighting back against the "Hummer homes" that are cropping up in established neighborhoods when the wealthy crowd moves in. Starter homes and small ranchers are being demolished and replaced by faux estates on quarter-acre lots as affluent people move closer to the city but don't want to live in smaller, older houses often found within city limits. To critics, these new homes look out of place compared to the rest of the neighborhood and clash with the existing architectural styles of the other properties.

If You Go Big
A home is likely to be the most expensive item you will ever purchase. If you are contemplating the move to a larger home, learn to pay attention to the details. It starts with choosing the right location. Purchasing a property in a neighborhood with homes of similar size and style will not only help you avoid antagonizing your neighbors, it will also make the property more attractive for resale. (To find out how big you want to go, see Mortgages: How Much Can You Afford?)

Likewise, choosing a property that has some land around it goes a long way toward making the house look like it belongs where it sits. Even communities that are seeking to limit or ban the construction of big homes don't tend to have a problem when a builder puts a large home on an equally large plot of land.

Just as the size of the lot plays in to the aesthetics of the purchase, so does the placement of the garage. Side-entry garages minimize the impact of having three or four garage bays side by side, toning down the "garage mahal" look. If side entry is not an option, consider a recessed garage design. Having a huge garage that sticks out in front of the house is simply not as attractive as a more understated look - for your neighbors or future buyers.

If you are building a new home, you should consider energy-efficient building practices and designs for new construction. The right heating and cooling systems, lighting, windows and insulation can make a big difference in the long-term cost of owning the home. You'll also want to pay attention to the quality of the materials used to build the house. To save a few dollars, many big houses use top-quality material on the front and lower quality material elsewhere. A beautiful brick or stucco facade faces the street, but vinyl siding is used for the sides and back. It's often worthwhile to spend the extra money to make the house look complete.

About Going Big
Despite the critics and the rising cost of energy, big homes remain popular. There are some buyers moving toward smaller homes, but they are in the minority. (See Downsize Your Home To Downsize Expenses for more on this trend.)

Those who can afford luxury have always been attracted to it and, if history offers any indication of the future, beautiful homes in ideal locations are always going to attract buyers. Furthermore, if you ever want to downsize in the future, your big house is likely to put a big check in your pocket.

If you are ready make the move, it's time to read Shopping For A Mortgage, Make A Risk-Based Mortgage Decision and Paying Off Your Mortgage.

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