Real Estate News

Tiny house? McMansion? How much space a person really needs.

Everybody needs a little elbow room, the old adage goes, but many of today’s home buyers want even more of it

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff

Everybody needs a little elbow room, the old adage goes, but many of today’s home buyers want even more of it — plus space for the big-screen TV, a playroom for the kids, and an office or two to boot. Just how much room do we really need to be happy in our homes?

A good friend recently bought a gargantuan 3,500-square-foot home for his family of four; it’s more than twice the size of their last house. And they’re hardly alone: Nearly a third (31 percent) of new houses built in 2015 in the United States were at least 3,000 square feet. Meanwhile, an entire movement has sprung up around tiny houses, generally defined as under 400 square feet, and some city planners are looking to micro-apartments as a potential solution to the affordable housing shortage.


The average American home falls well between those two extremes at 1,901 square feet, according to a recent survey of 29,000 homeowners by the real estate marketplace Point 2 Homes. Australians reported the largest average home size (2,032 square feet), while the average European home ranged from 1,314 square feet in Spain to 1,590 in Great Britain.

But there’s no real “normal’’ when it comes to desired home size — except the persistent perception that size equates to prestige, said Dak Kopec, director of Design for Human Health at Boston Architectural College. “Throughout all cultures, bigger is better and associated with wealth and power.’’

Indeed, for many Americans, it seems like no house is ever big enough. A 2015 survey by the real estate website Trulia found that 43 percent of Americans would prefer a bigger home than the one they live in now, compared with just 16 percent who would like to downsize. Incredibly, even 25 percent of those living in homes of at least 3,200 square feet still pine for something bigger.

“It’s clear that the American dream of living in a big house on a large lot has not gone away,’’ said Ralph McLaughlin, Trulia’s chief economist.


Home builders are happy to cater to those desires. The average size of a new home built in 2015 was 2,687 square feet, according to Census data — a new high. If that seems huge to you, remember that homes were built smaller 50 years ago, and the housing stock in Massachusetts is the second-oldest in the country. What’s more, 42 percent of Bay Staters live in multifamily units, which averaged a more modest 1,132 square feet in 2015; nationally, only 1 in 4 people lives in multifamily housing.

Tricia Svendsen of Attleboro grew up in just such a home: She has fond memories of sharing a crowded five-room apartment with her parents and seven siblings. (Read her My First Home piece here.) “Knowing nothing different, it seemed normal,’’ she said, recalling waiting in line for the only bathroom and sparring over space. “My sister and I shared a double bed, and I remember us accusing each other of being on the other one’s side [and] lots of arguments about where the center of the bed was.’’

While some of her siblings, perhaps in response to the experience, now live in homes of more than 4,500 square feet, Svendsen and her husband raised three children in their 1,910-square-foot Cape. “I’ve lived in a two-room apartment with two college roommates, a three-room apartment when first married, a five-room house,’’ Svendsen said. “I think I adapt to whatever space I have.’’


Tracey Powell, an architectural consultant, is no stranger to cozy confines, either: She grew up in a 40-foot RV. “There were four of us in there, so we each had less than 100 square feet per person, and it was fine,’’ Powell said. “We were very close as a family. We didn’t have a lot of secrets, that’s for sure.’’ Powell, though, is still on good terms with both small spaces and family: She now lives in a 150-square-foot tiny home she built with her brother, an electrician.

One reason American homes are so big, Powell argued, is that we have more disposable income. “You’re not just buying a 2,000-square-foot house, you’re also going to fill it with a whole bunch of stuff,’’ she said. The larger house and its contents soon become your new baseline, she said, as the furniture, paintings, and lamps you buy blend into the background to become part of your environment. “And then you can only upsize from there if you choose to keep your possessions.’’

But do bigger, more expensive homes bring us any more happiness or satisfaction?

Maybe, said Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and coauthor of “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending,’’ but not in the status-boosting way you might expect. A study by Grace Wong Bucchianeri at the University of Pennsylvania showed that a higher home price had no effect on an owner’s happiness, but additional elbow room did. “While we love to hate big houses, she found that having more space per person seems to be a good thing in terms of people’s day-to-day happiness,’’ Dunn said.


And most of us have more personal space than ever before. As home sizes have increased, the average American household has gotten smaller, largely because young adults are getting married and having children later in life. In the Point 2 Homes survey, Americans led all countries with an average of 656 square feet per person.

Dunn speculates that a larger home could boost happiness if it reduces conflict. “If you have a house that enables you to get along well with your spouse, if each person has a little of their own space, that might reduce conflict,’’ she said, “but I suspect there are seriously diminishing returns on that.’’

After all, having too much space means you may not even see one another. After working with families in Texas, Kopec said, he noticed that large homes could lead to isolation among kids — as if they’d been left home alone. “In the 1980s, latchkey kids basically raised themselves with little supervision. With the McMansions of the late ’90s and early 2000s, despite . . . helicopter parents, many of the kids could successfully avoid parental interaction in these very large homes,’’ he said.

Some buyers find older large homes — even those built just 20 years ago — intimidating to own, especially if they need updates to a large kitchen or multiple baths, said Doug McNeilly, a real estate agent based in Wayland. He also notes that some buyers are turned off by houses that seem big just for the sake of it. “How the space is utilized is paramount,’’ McNeilly said. “I viewed one house that had a formal dining room, another full-size dining area within the great room, and a breakfast room. For some buyers that’s just too many eating areas, not to mention having to furnish it all.’’


Dunn suggests home buyers pay less attention to how big a home is and instead consider how it would affect how they use their time. Positive relationships, exposure to green space, and exercise are all well-proven happiness boosters, while other aspects of a new house can take a decidedly negative toll.

“One of the things that’s really clear is that commuting is a disaster for happiness,’’ Dunn said. Commuting is linked to a litany of health issues, and a one-hour commute takes the same emotional toll as being unemployed, she said. “So moving out to the suburbs for a bigger home is likely to be a poor trade-off when it comes to happiness.’’

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to our homes; everyone has different expectations, wants, and comfort levels. But if you’re on the fence about paying more money for a third dining area, Powell would remind us that our parents and grandparents probably got by just fine in smaller spaces.

“These homes that are over 1,000 square feet per person, this is a new phenomenon in the last century,’’ Powell said. “I think these giant homes will be a very short-lived trend and we’ll go back to the small structures we’ve always had for thousands of years.’’

Jon Gorey is a freelance writer in Quincy. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey.


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