Monday, January 2, 2012

Thinking Small is Sometimes Good

Remember “McMansions,” those ever larger homes built with vinyl siding and plastic “woodwork,” set on huge lots. They defined the mad grab for huge square footage in the late ‘90s and early 2000s - lots of space with little quality. But the buyers I’m working with in my day job as a Realtor increasingly want something smaller than they might have chosen 5 years ago, and they want higher quality.

Historic Perspective
In 1950 the average square footage of the typical American home was less than half the size it is today. What’s more, then the average family included over 5 people. It is roughly half that today. So today we average twice as much house for half the people. Those families of 5 or 6 in the 1950s found one bathroom completely reasonable and thought little of having 2 or 3 boys share a single bedroom.

Today I rarely show houses to families that expect their children to share a bedroom. And anything less than 2 baths is considered a hardship.

Though few buyers today are ready to go back to the 1950s, a search for simplicity and a reaction against the housing gluttony of the turn of the 21st century seems to be have taken hold. I also find that recent economic hard times and relentless media stories about folks who overextended themselves has buyers thinking more cautiously, choosing houses safely within their means rather than stretching the wallet to get an extra 500 square feet, a home theater room, or that 3rd garage bay.

Seeking Financial Simplicity
I see a broad trend toward living more simply among my circle of friends and clients. That’s reinforced by what I read in the media. That clutching, grabbing, spending that was so much a part of our lives just a few years ago seems a bit much today. The shallow drive for more and bigger, for quantity over quality, has begun to feel a little like leisure suites from the 1970s or big hair on teen girls in the late ‘80s - makes us roll our eyes and wonder what we were thinking. But it’s not just fashion. Seeing so many people suffering now from the results of being out on a limb when the economy collapsed is sobering, even if you, yourself dodged the worst of the downturn. There is that humming, buzzing suggestion at the back of the mind that you might be the next to lose your job.

I think many of my clients also regret what acquiring all that house did to their lives. There was more to maintain - a huge yard to mow and tend, more gutters to clean, more toilets, sinks, and showers to clean and keep in working order.

A former student from my teaching days called from upstate New York a couple months ago and told me he was being transferred back to Indiana. I spent a day with his family looking at houses spread from Pendleton to Noblesville’s west side. They’re a couple in their early 30s, with two small children and are pre-qualified for homes priced well above $200,000 but were looking only at homes between $150,000 and $200,000, even though their job situation is secure. They’re looking forward to downsizing to live with more financial cushion and have money to do other things.

And during the boom years of ‘05 and ‘06 I found myself working with buyers and sellers on the leading edge of the baby boom generation, looking to downsize as their kids were grown and retirement approached. There’s an old, snarky real estate phrase: “Buyers are liars,” meaning they say they want one thing but buy something else. And my “downsizers” of those boom years did just that. When they saw what downsized square footage actually looked like, they often ended up buying the same square footage they were selling, with their only downsizing concession being to choose a one level ranch with no stairs to climb.

But not anymore. For the most part my retirement-age downsizers truly are downsizing, seeking less to maintain, less to clean, less to worry about, and more money in their pockets so they can visit grandchildren and have fun.

Seeking A More Self-Sufficient Lifestyle
Several other buyers in the past couple years have been looking for homes where they could plant a vegetable garden, can and store their food, run a home business, sew, do woodworking - whatever. There’s a little bit of a retro-hippie, back-to-the-land edge to these buyers. I have a particular soft spot in my heart for such folks because that kinda describes me.

These buyers might forego a newer subdivision for a more urban environment where they can walk to schools, parks, and shopping. They want a farmers market nearby, civic activities at hand, and a more economically and socially diverse community. Though Old Town Noblesville provides most of what’s on that list, I do know families who have left Hamilton County entirely and moved to downtown Indianapolis. Two young families I know in particular have no intention to move back to the suburbs. They have their urban gardens, mass transit busses, and private or charter schools. They love the concentrated excitement of the city.

Quality Over Quantity
Another national trend at play in this housing reassessment is a willingness to pay a little more for locally made and/or higher quality products, while generally consuming less. If you’re bothered by how we Americans buy cheap, foreign crap at Wal-Mart, sell it at garage sales a year later at pennies on the dollar, then go back and buy more cheap, foreign crap at Wal-Mart, then you have some sense of the ethic I’m talking about.

This thinking makes a McMansion with plastic woodwork, filled with furniture made of plywood and wood-grained cardboard less desirable than a house half the size, but with hardwood floors and granite countertops. It’s about downsizing on square footage and upscaling quality and durability.

The common thread running through these various home-buying motivations is about reducing consumption, living more simply and self-sufficiently, and pursuing more long-lived durability. It’s hard to know if this is a profound and lasting shift in cultural values or simply a shock reaction and adaptation to a big, lingering economic downturn. No matter which it is, these shifting home buying values create new opportunities and challenges for my buyers and sellers.


  1. Working with a pair of guidelines, you are going to notice that it really is family member easy to deploy your own personal kitchen countertops, even though you could have no do-it-yourself knowledge.

  2. Your statement: "It’s hard to know if this is a profound and lasting shift in cultural values or simply a shock reaction and adaptation to a big, lingering economic downturn."

    This is an incredibly interesting question. On a wide scale we have not experienced anything like the Great Depression. Of course we all have listened to people that did - or these days listened to folks describe the effect it had on their parents; how it changed their lives and outlook well beyond that experience. We believe most things are cyclical and that soon we will have a new generation of folks who can have it all and might (maybe my kids). Of course that may be positive thinking. I suppose given the means, people by in large will always have an urge to indulge / overindulge. Quality over quantity - will that be how they spend it? Another interesting question. If so, what are we going to do with all those plastic houses that were built.