U.S. trend: bigger home, smaller lot

`Young seniors' also loom large in builders' survey

Little time for lawn care

Tastes are changing: High ceilings are in

living room is out

April 08, 2001|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

The saying goes that a man's house is his castle.

Well, the trend that is beginning to evolve is that a home should be built to the size of a castle.

Bigger rooms. More space. Higher ceilings. Larger homes. All on smaller lots.

That was one of the findings of a forecast describing "The Next Decade for Housing" released last month by the National Association of Home Builders. It is a trend not lost on local homebuilders in the Baltimore area.

In addition to the ever-expanding home, the forecast, put together by NAHB's economics, mortgage and finance and policy divisions, also gave a number of predictions concerning American housing for the next decade. Among them were:

Demand factors will produce more than 18 million new housing units.

The changing age structure of the population will favor the trade-up, second home and "young seniors" market in the next five years. Then, in the last five years of the decade, children of the baby boom will push the rental and starter-home markets.

The nation's homeownership rate -- already at a record 67.8 percent -- will exceed 70 percent as the population ages and larger proportions of lower-income and minority groups become homeowners.

New homes will have a growing list of amenities, including high-tech features, higher ceilings and specialty rooms. Median square footage, which has been increasing, will subside.

"One of the most surprising things is that the size of the home is not stopping; it is still increasing," said Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for NAHB. He said that in the last 30 years the average household size has declined by about 30 percent from 3.1 persons in 1970 to 2.1. Meanwhile, he said, "the home size has gone up by 50 percent."

The median square footage of a single-family detached home in 1967 was about 1,500 square feet. Today, it is nearly 2,100 square feet.

And today's buyers are looking not only outward, but upward.

"A 9-foot or higher ceiling was only [found] in upscale or fancy homes," Ahluwalia said. "The average home had 8 feet. Now everybody wants 9-foot ceilings -- more volume, more openness, more light."

But, he added, "I don't think it can keep increasing."

Although consumers desire bigger homes, they don't seem to mind building on a smaller lots, he said.

"In California, in Orange County, where the land is very expensive, they are building a 4,000-square-foot home on a 5,000-square-foot lot," Ahluwalia said. "People are not concerned. They don't want to do any work outside."

The change in lifestyle has had an effect on homebuyers. The side effects of the two-income family have taxed leisure time that years ago would have been devoted to the home.

"People are working more today than they have every worked. They don't have time to take care of a yard," said Earl Robinson, marketing and sales director for Ryland Homes in Baltimore.

"In theory, everyone talks about how they would love to have an acre. Well, go talk to someone who has an acre, and they are looking for a smaller yard because they can't cut it and take care of it anymore.

"People want to come home, lock their front door, and they want the great big entertainment center, the big kitchen in their house, and they want to go out for a very short time to take care of the yard. We see this."

Kevin Carney, a developer and president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said it is a "mixing of the economics because of land scarcity, plus meeting the lifestyle of everybody."

Five years ago, the average single-family home typically would be 2,000 square feet on a quarter-acre, according to Robinson. "Today, it is probably 3,000 square feet," Robinson said.

Ryland already has taken into account consumers' preference for a big-box design. The area's No. 2 builder is introducing a line of homes in Bel Air in Harford County that go up to 3,800 square feet, sell in the $260,000 range -- modest for its size -- and are situated on a quarter-acre.

"What they really are is just great big boxes ... just great big houses," Robinson said.

"There is not a lot of flair. If you are looking for a two-story foyer, this wouldn't be it. But most of them have three-car garages. Let's just build a house with three-car garages that are just big and inexpensive to build because there is not a lot of flair. We are selling them like mad," he said.

Robinson acknowledged that it is much more cost-effective to build a 3,000-square-foot home on a quarter-acre lot as opposed to the acre lot, but added, "Rarely does someone walk into a new community and say, `How big is the lot?' They usually say. `How big is the home?'

"They are more concerned about the size of the homes that you are building. They want 3,000 square feet. That is the magic number that everyone is looking for."

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