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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Americans Outgrow 'Supersizing' Trend

NEW YORK -- Last year, McDonald's phased out its "supersize'' French fries and soft drinks. Portions, it seems, had gone about as far as they could go.

Could the same be true of the supersized houses known as McMansions?

After more than 30 years of steady increase, the size of the typical American house appears to be leveling off, according to statistics gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The Generation X-ers who are becoming home buyers right now want more amenities -- and they are willing to trade away space to get them,'' said Jerry Howard, vice president and chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders.

The size of the average U.S. house rose from about 139 square meters in 1970 to more than 213 square meters in 2001, with a particularly big growth spurt in the late 1990s.

But from 2001 to 2004, the growth practically halted.

"That suggests that the size of the average house is stabilizing,'' said Gopal Ahluwalia, a home builders' association statistician.

For the second quarter of 2005, the average new detached house measured just under 223 square meters, the Census Bureau said.

Howard said consumers were thinking less about space and more about "bells and whistles," including professional-style appliances and exotic woods with names like ipe and wenge.

In a 2004 nationwide survey, the association asked homeowners: "For the same amount of money, which of the following would you choose: a bigger house with fewer amenities, or a smaller house with high-quality products and amenities?'' Only 37 percent of the 2,900 randomly selected respondents wanted the bigger house. Sixty-three percent said they would prefer the smaller house with more amenities.

In 2000, when the association asked the same question, the results were sharply different. Back then, 51 percent said they wanted the bigger house; 49 percent opted for the smaller-but-better house, Ahluwalia said. He added that he believed even more would choose "the smaller house" when the association asks the same question in its 2006 survey.

Across the country, developers say they are seeing signs of that shift. "More and more people who come in are willing to talk about less space,'' said Catherine Horsey, a vice president of Urban Edge Developers in Dallas. She said new houses at the company's Urban Reserve development would average 232 square meters. That, she said, is small for Dallas.

Megahouses are still going up in affluent areas -- but even at the high end, there are signs that the trend toward bigness has abated.

Richard Warren, a planning consultant at Long Island, New York, helps clients obtain zoning approval for new houses. In the last few years, he said, the number of people looking to build the largest permissible house has declined. "There will always be people who want big houses, but we're not seeing the grossness we'd been seeing," he said. "People are thinking twice about why they need all that space."

There are many reasons the appeal of bigger houses may be waning, including the high cost of maintaining them.

"In a city where $1,000 a month air-conditioning bills are not uncommon,'' Horsey said, "people are beginning to say, 'Maybe I can have less space, and spend the money on a trip to Europe.'"

Increasing fuel prices are likely to make large houses even less appealing, Ahluwalia and others said. Rising interest rates and land prices also make large houses harder to afford. And an aging population increasingly includes empty-nesters who are looking to downsize.

Then there is the cost of furnishing the houses in a style appropriate to their dimensions. Robert Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said he believed many McMansions were actually empty nests. "You walk in the door, and there's not a stick of furniture -- certainly not furniture large enough to justify the spaces," he said.

But it may also be that Americans have simply attained all the space they need. The home builders' association, in its polls, asked consumers how big a house they would like to have. The average response in the 2004 poll was 225 square meters -- barely bigger than the average house built this year. Ahluwalia, who has worked for the association for 29 years, said the gap between how big houses are and how big people would like them to be has never been so slight.

Stern, himself the designer of many large houses, agreed. "I think we've reached a size that satisfies most people's ambitions," he said.