Are We Finally Downsizing?

Americans are beginning to see the value in owning a smaller house

Home Buying Trends

October 01, 2006|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,SUN REPORTER

Six years ago, Erin and Oliver Somers thought they had arrived, moving from a cramped condominium to a roomy four-bedroom Colonial in the rapidly growing suburb of Eldersburg.

But in the spring, the couple sold that big new house for a stucco and stone French-country-style cottage in Baltimore with nearly a third less space.

"We wanted something smaller," said Erin Somers, 46, a public relations executive with a health insurance firm in Columbia. "Over time it just seemed like too much house for us."

Americans' seemingly boundless appetite for ever-larger homes may be weakening, largely as a result of an aging population seeking to cut down on the amount of time and energy they have to expend on upkeep of their castles.

"There's a shift going on, and a lot of people are asking, `What are we going to do with these big houses? What are we going to do as energy prices go higher?"' said Sarah Susanka, an architect and author of The Not So Big House.

Though new homes averaged more than 2,400 feet of living space last year, empty-nesters and young couples are reviving demand for smaller homes such as condominiums, ranchers and Cape Cods.

Builders insist that most buyers still want bigger homes, undeterred by the rising costs to heat and cool them. But they acknowledge that the number of people seeking out smaller living spaces is increasing.

Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research at the National Association of Home Builders, said more buyers, particularly aging baby boomers whose children are grown, are looking for houses with less lawn to mow and less floor space to carpet and clean. He sees it as an adjustment to reality - not unlike the recent "correction" in the overall housing market that has seen sales lag and previously soaring prices level off.

"Our family size has been declining for the last 35 years, and we have been buying bigger homes," Ahluwalia said. "It doesn't make sense."

The average new single-family home in the United States has been growing more or less steadily for years, from 1,500 square feet in 1970 to 2,434 square feet last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Ranchers and other one-story homes, which tend to be smaller than two- or three-story dwellings, have gone from being 74 percent of all housing built three decades ago to 42 percent last year.

Ahluwalia said single-home size growth appears to have slowed in recent years - though last year saw another jump in the nationwide average, driven largely by swelling home sizes in the West.

Underlying those data, some observers see an attitudinal shift, with buyers tending to yield in their quest for ever-larger homes in favor of ones with more amenities, such as entertainment rooms, home offices and extra fireplaces.

"You can have a better house that's a much better place to live, that feels bigger but it's not really larger," Susanka, the Raleigh, N.C.-based architect, said while in Baltimore recently for a lecture and book-signing. "It's not about size. It's about the quality."

"Character" is what the Somerses found in their house in Homeland, which was built in 1930. Though the kitchen is smaller than the one in the house they had built in Eldersburg, Oliver Somers, 43, a data analyst, said, "it's more efficient." It also has touches like cabinet handles fashioned from old silver spoons and forks.

Susanka said she's also seeing renewed interest in single-story living.

"With all the interest in accessibility in design, and aging baby boomers, there's a bit more interest in living on one level," she said. Ranch homes, a suburban staple in the '60s and '70s, lost their appeal over the years- in part, she said, because many thought them dull. "You can make them interesting," she said, by varying ceiling heights, for instance.

"Ranchers are getting a second look," agreed Sue Hemmerly, a real estate agent with Long & Foster, but "with the thought of renovations, new kitchens, removing walls, opening floor plans up." Baby boomers, a group that Hemmerly said includes her, are sometimes not ready to downsize quite as much as most condos require, she said.

Susanka said demand for smaller homes is part of a trend she sees in people seeking to unclutter their lives.

Lori and Michael Mann chose to unclutter their lives, big-time. They moved this summer from a 7,000-square-foot mansion in Sparks to a 2,500-square-foot, Florida-style home they had built on Browns Creek in eastern Baltimore County.

"We always wanted to downsize, and we actually thought we would get a condo in Florida and a condo in Ocean City," Laurie Mann, 54, said. But she and her husband Michael, also 54, chose not to move that far after visiting some relatives with a waterfront place on Sue Creek.

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