What Is a McMansion? Definition, Meaning, and Examples of Size

What Is a McMansion?

McMansion is a slang term that describes a large, often opulent or ostentatious, mass-produced house. The name carries a somewhat critical connotation due to the notion that McMansions lack architectural uniqueness, class, or style. 

"McMansion" is a play on McDonald's fast-food restaurants but is also associated with a generic, cookie-cutter, suburban aesthetic style-as-social status.

Key Takeaways

  • McMansion is a disparaging term for overly large and opulent mass-produced homes that are lack architectural authenticity or class.
  • McMansions are considered to be generic and a cliched reflection of new wealth and superficial lifestyle.
  • The appearance of McMansions began in the 1980s and continued through the 2000s up until the financial crisis.
  • McMansions were initially built as statement pieces rather than practical places to live, and so were built with cheap materials or poor construction with the primary purpose of checking off must-have items like a pool or bonus room.

Understanding McMansions

The slang term connects the McMansion style to upper-middle-class homeowners. Built to provide a luxurious housing experience that was previously only available to high-net-worth individuals, a McMansion is often considered a status symbol.

Notorious for their size and suburban locales, the cost of maintaining such a home is significant. Buyers often face high utility bills, expensive landscape care, and costly maintenance fees. Another added expense is the need to commute from the remote, suburban location of the McMansion to a city center.

These homes are generally between 3,000 square feet and 5,000 square feet. The large home size is meant to signify the owner's high social and economic standing. McMansions were most popular from the 1980s through the early 2000s, before the crash of the housing market in 2008.

Characteristics of a McMansion

McMansions are known for their poor design. Some of the most common features of McMansions that are looked upon negatively are their over-sized proportion in relation to the neighborhood; low-quality building material used in construction; incongruous placement of windows, doors, columns, terraces, and porches; a poor mix of different architectural styles, usually historic, which make for an odd appearance; and entrances and rooms with grand openings.

Most often, a McMansion is simply made by a construction company without the insight of an architect just to cater to the desires of the individual purchasing the home. It's important to distinguish McMansions from real mansions or other opulent homes, though large, have actually been made well and with architectural insight, not just for the purpose of showing off.

Cookie-cutter designs, tiny lawns, closely-packed neighbors, and garish designs that feature multiple garages nearly as big as the homes (earning these 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.

Large grey stone mansion too big, so it's called a McMansion, in Illinois
McMansion construction in Illinois. Photo ©chicagogeek on flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Rise and Fall of McMansions

Many of the negative connotations associated with McMansions result from the Great Recession. The Great Recession refers to the sharp decline in economic activity during the late 2000s, generally considered the largest downturn since the Great Depression.

The combination of rising home prices, loose lending practices, and an increase in subprime mortgages, alongside a growing supply of large tract homes, caused the U.S. housing market to bust, causing large amounts of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and derivatives to lose significant value.

Because of the 2007 housing crisis, the McMansion lifestyle equated to living beyond one’s means and the proliferation of subprime mortgages, which are considered an underlying cause of the recession. A subprime mortgage is one granted to borrowers with low credit ratings or those at a larger-than-average risk of defaulting on the loan. Subprime mortgages often have higher interest rates than a conventional mortgage but require little to no down payment.

The McMansion, because it is easily built and attractive to consumers, was the perfect vehicle for subprime loans. Many people lost their homes, and others saw the value of their homes drop below the original loan amount because of the subprime mortgage. In some cases, borrowers were better off defaulting on their underwater mortgage loans rather than paying more for a home that had dropped so precipitously in value.

McMansion Backlash

From Austin, TX to Atlanta, GA, disgruntled neighbors, zoning boards, and local politicians are fighting back against the McMansions that are cropping up in well-established neighborhoods when the nouveau riche crowd moves in. Starter homes and smaller ranches have been demolished and replaced by faux estates on relatively small quarter-acre lots as more affluent people move closer to the city but don't want to live in the 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

Despite the critics and the rising cost of energy, the big house trend remains popular in the United States. There are some buyers moving toward smaller homes or tiny homes, but they are in the minority. 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.