Living Large

From SUVs to Double Ds---Why Going Bigger Isn't Going Better

Sarah Z. Wexler

St. Martin's Press

LIVING LARGE (Chapter 1)
 
The McMansion Expansion

Kathy, a longtime friend from Northern Virginia, invited me over to her Manhattan apartment. She said she wanted to share some big news. As I walked the familiar sixteen blocks from my place to hers, I thought about what the news could be. Within the last year, she’d gotten married and she and her husband were about to have a baby. They lived in—by New York standards—a fancy-schmancy place, since the building was three blocks from the subway and had an elevator, a gym, a terrace, and a doorman. As soon as she swung open her door, she laid it on me: they were moving. Back to the D.C. suburbs, into a big new house. With all of the baby accoutrements (the crib, stroller, jogging stroller, carrier, and changing table all gathered in a corner, waiting), it was true that their once-spacious apartment felt stuffed. I was sad for her to leave the city—and me—but I knew the move, back to her family and to a home with lots of room for her new family to grow, was a great one for her. A few months later, they were gone.

Once they’d gotten settled, Kathy invited me to come see the house and, of course, the adorable baby, who was crawling by then. They’d set up in a community in Montgomery County, Maryland, what’s been called “the heart of mansion country.”

To get there, I drove past 8,000-square-foot house after house, set along what used to be rolling pastures of horse country. These days, it’s one of the wealthiest counties in America, and has the country’s largest percentage of residents older than twenty-five years old who hold a postgraduate degree (nearly a third of the residents).

What makes a house a McMansion?—defined as “a modern house built on a large and imposing scale, but regarded as ostentatious and lacking architectural integrity.” These fit the mold: brand-new, grandiose cookie-cutter architecture, very large, and in this case built on a lot that once contained a smaller house. Driving around the bucolic-sounding, sweetly named streets (Quince Orchard Road, Chestnut Hill Street, even a Placid Street), it felt like I’d fallen into Candyland, with identical gingerbread houses lining every identical street. There were no yards to speak of, since the lots were mostly a quarter of an acre, with a matter of just a few feet separating the windows of neighbors’ living rooms. The neighborhood contains 1,800 homes. In the mid-’90s, Walmart actually proposed setting up a 160,000-square-foot store in the middle of the neighborhood, though the plan ultimately fizzled.

I was struck by the sheer size of the houses. They were as garish as a row of gold teeth. And Kathy had definitely moved into a McMansion. Most homes in the neighborhood were larger than 5,000 square feet, which just about doubles the national average. In classic McMansion form, the houses looked pristine from the street, but the other three sides were done as inexpensively as possible; the curb appeal of brick was replaced with miles of white vinyl siding. Houses were a mishmash of overly ornate styles, what Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski rounds up as “architectural bits and pieces: a portico, classical columns, Palladian [rounded at the top] windows, dentil [small rectangular blocks] moldings at the eaves, even quoins [stone trim at the corners]. They all add up to—what? No style that I can identify, like a badly mismatched outfit…producing a caricature. It isn’t just that [McMansions] are big, like their namesake Big Macs; it’s that they celebrate bigness.” Out of all the places in the world, why would Kathy—cosmopolitan, bright, tasteful Kathy—want to live here?

 

John Stilgoe, professor of the history of landscape at Harvard University, tells me that though he would never choose to live in a McMansion—also called a Garage Mahal, Starter Castle, or Hummer House—he sees the appeal.

“McMansions are mostly practical,” he argues. “A house that big allows you to get away from your family and have private personal space, whereas a small apartment would not.”

I think back to the loads of baby supplies piled in Kathy’s old apartment. In her case, upsizing not only made sense; it seemed downright mandatory.

“It’s practical because you can have an attic where you store things like old dining-room sets. Then when the kids are grown up and furnishing their first place, you don’t have to run out and buy everything new, since you had room to store things,” he says.

I mention that there are lots of homes with attics and basements that aren’t McMansions.

“It’s also a way for people to show their status and wealth,” he says. “Some people do it through fancy benefits, some with clothes, and some do it with houses. I feel sorry for them, thinking they have something to prove or that they have to put it right out there to get validation.”

The supersized house as a supersized way to show off. It sounds obvious. But that doesn’t sound like Kathy, either. So what else is it that could motivate someone to buy big?

 

“The American house has been swelling for decades,” said a 2002 article in The New York Times. “It has swollen even though it stands on a smaller lot. It has swollen even though a smaller family lives in it.” Since 1940, the average number of people living in an American home has dropped from 3.7 to 2.6, but the average size of new houses has grown. The average American home ballooned from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 square feet in 2004, a 140 percent increase in size. Homes are then landscaped to look even larger, with many buyers requesting fewer trees and less vegetation to bring less attention to the land and more to the house.

The neighborhoods where Kathy and I grew up, in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia, consisted mostly of houses built in the 1950s and ’60s. They were a mix of different styles, some with flat roofs, or bricks covered in ivy, or classic Colonials, each set on a one-acre lot with a tree-filled backyard. I noticed, though, every time I went home to visit that a swath of woods surrounding my neighborhood was being bulldozed, rows of identical McMansions popping up in its place. I thought I was imagining, or at least exaggerating the trend, until I read that five of the nation’s ten top big-house communities are in the D.C. suburbs—and of those, in such communities as Fairfax and Montgomery County, Maryland, more than two-thirds of the houses have nine rooms or more, not counting bathrooms or utility rooms. And it’s not just going on around Washington, D.C.—other places around the country are becoming known for McMansion sprawl, including the suburbs of Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Austin, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. About two-thirds of the country’s largest cities have McMansions.

In 2007, the average size of a new house in America hit a record 2,302 square feet. According to Realtor magazine, we’d been growing for a long time. In the 1920s, middle-class homes “were essentially two rooms wide by three-four rooms deep.” Despite the baby boom in the early 1950s, the average middle-class home stayed around the same size but due to the new ranch-style, was just rotated to “three-four rooms wide by two rooms deep.” Our families weren’t getting any bigger, but by the greed-is-good 1980s, the modest family-style ranch home was out of vogue, and the McMansion was born. As homes were built farther away from city cores, developers began to crowd two-story homes on smaller lots. Imposing facades became more important to home buyers than backyard barbecues.

 

Kathy takes me through the sprawling foyer, a vision in beige. The new carpet is beige. The walls are beige. Even though she has a few pieces of beautiful framed art hanging up, the walls are so expansive that they still feel bare. We walk through a living room, an office, a dining room, another living space, and the massive kitchen. We head upstairs to more rooms, more beige walls with cathedral ceilings, and more beige carpeting. For all of the architectural mishmash outside, McMansions are nothing if not uniform inside. She shows me the palatial master bedroom. Even with a massively fluffy bed in the center, the room still seems empty. The New York Times article said that most New York apartments could fit in the bedroom of a McMansion, and that holds true for Kathy’s old apartment and new bedroom. Though she’s been in the house for a few months and made several expensive trips to Pottery Barn, the house still feels unlived-in. Maybe that’s because in a house this large, with two adults and an infant, it’s impossible to use even half of this space.

We head downstairs to the finished basement, again beige. I’m getting unnerved by the uniformity of it all. It’s not that Kathy has a fetish for bland—quite the opposite. She dresses with polish and sophistication and always has the baby decked out in adorably hip kid gear. This is simply the way of McMansions, and my fashionable friend Kathy’s is no exception: it’s generic, standard-issue, inoffensive. The basement is divided evenly between a playroom for baby and a playroom for daddy. The grown-ups’ side has a massive flat-screen TV and deep leather couches. The baby’s side looks like a Toys “R” Us, with every kind of action hero and toy car and gray-matter-building games and stuffed animal strewn across the floor. Despite all of the furniture and mounds of kid stuff, the room still feels cavernous and empty. Though the old adage is that home is where you hang your hat or where the heart is, I can’t imagine ever feeling at home in such an uncozy, looming structure. As we climb the steps to go back upstairs and Kathy excitedly tells me about a new chair, I think of the line about McMansions from comedian Mo Rocca: “Who among us has walked through a ‘Great Room’ and not expected to meet the Bachelor waiting with a rose?” It’s apropos because this house feels about as authentic as reality TV.

 

The home is the most personal place in the world. It’s no wonder that the house is the cornerstone of the American dream. Buying a bigger home is an unparalleled form of expression—a tangible way to show yourself and everyone else—that you’re movin’ on up. It makes sense that so many of us would want a marker for what we’ve achieved. So who cares if someone wants to live in a McMansion?

Critics say the influx of McMansions affects not just its occupants, but the entire community around them. Tearing down houses to build supersized ones in their place puts stress on older infrastructure. The good news is that McMansions can send property values soaring; the bad news is that, as a result, tax rates also soar, which can force out longtime residents.

Building any new home, rather than moving into a home that already exists, creates a demand for new materials. It consumes huge resources: the lumber used for a typical 3,000-square-foot house stretched end to end would exceed four miles. Americans broke wood consumption records in 2004 and again in 2005, according to the Western Wood Products Association, to frame more than two million new houses in the latter year. “A house will spend decades cranking out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Over a fifty-year lifetime, greenhouse emissions caused by the standard American house account for thirty to forty times the weight of the carbon that’s socked away in its wood frame. The bigger the house, the bigger the emissions,” writes Stan Cox in an article called “Big Houses Are Not Green: America’s McMansion Problem.”

To assuage Americans’ enviroguilt, many builders are offering to construct “green” supersized houses. That’s an oxymoron. “A 1,500-square-foot house with mediocre energy-performance standards will use far less energy for heating and cooling than a 3,000-square-foot house of comparable geometry with much better energy detailing,” said a 2005 report in the Journal of Industrial Ecology. “Additional energy is wasted by the longer heating/cooling ducts and hot-water pipes in a big house,” notes Cox, “and such houses have more surface area, thus requiring more fossil fuel to cool and heat them.” So even if someone builds a McMansion with energy-saving materials, the impact is, at best, equivalent to that of a smaller house, but certainly isn’t a net plus to the environment.

Some areas—including Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles, and Montgomery County, Maryland—have begun instituting rules about the maximum height of new homes and, in some cases, design approval boards to try to control supersize sprawl. Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, said a home couldn’t take up more than 55 percent of its lot, while in Arlington County, Virginia, an even stricter rule was passed: a home’s footprint can take up no more than 30 percent of its lot.

 

With ever-falling mortgage rates, a climate that considered real estate a sound investment, and an anybody-gets-a-loan credit situation, it’s no wonder McMansions became the suburban status quo. In 2003, Jonathan Clements wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal called “The Problem Is the Big House, Not the Small Salary,” where he compared home costs. “Newly constructed single-family homes had a median size of 2,114 square feet in 2002, up from 1,520 square feet in 1982. That’s a 39 percent increase in twenty years,” he wrote. After crunching numbers, he figured that getting that larger 2,114-square-foot house would only cost $281 more a month than the 1,520-square-foot house, which makes it astonishingly clear why so many middle-class families were able to stretch their way into McMansions. “Even as homes have ballooned in size, interest rates have tumbled,” wrote Clements. “Thanks to twenty years of falling mortgage rates, today’s buyers are getting more house for less money. It almost seems too good to be true. And, of course, it is too good to be true.”

During the lending free-for-all, McMansions didn’t seem like an unwise investment. But after the housing market took a violent downturn, many were trapped in their McMansion decision; by 2009, one in eight of all homeowners faced foreclosure. Take, for example, Loudon County, Virginia, another D.C. suburb, that often boasts the country’s highest median income, about $107,207. It’s roughly about fifteen miles from where Kathy lives. “At the end of 2007, twenty of the twenty-five houses for sale for more than $850,000 in Loudoun County appeared to be foreclosures,” said a 2008 Reuters article. “One out of every sixty-nine households in the county was in foreclosure, well above the national average of one filing for every 555 households.” Wealthy—or aspirational—families signed up for loans during boom times, but during bust, McMansions became nearly impossible to pay for—or unload. “These can take years to sell, as they must compete with brand-new developments still coming online…there’s no market for a million-dollar rental property.”

McMansion foreclosures hurt more than the people who put their names on the mortgages, and more than the investors who got caught in the downturn. A 2008 article in The Atlantic pointed out that “the crisis is harming the neighbors of people in foreclosure, even those who aren’t having trouble making loan payments…every foreclosure reduces the value of all other houses within an eighth of a mile by about 1 percent, as the sight of vacant property scares off potential buyers. Combine that with a market already in decline, and neighborhoods that begin to have troubles can go off the cliff.” The article lists areas “with at least a veneer of affluence” that have been especially hard-hit, including the suburbs surrounding Las Vegas, Miami-Dade County, California’s Central Valley, much of Florida and the Southwest, eastern Colorado, and Greater Atlanta.

A few related factors make McMansions less and less appealing every day. The first is obvious: the recession, and belt-tightening, make them impractical at best, impossible at worst. The second is the spike in home heating and cooling costs, which makes tightening the belt even less realistic for McMansion dwellers (a Wall Street Journal example figured it can cost $5,000 a year or more to heat and cool a 5,000-square-foot house in a city such as Farmington, Connecticut). The third is that many of the 78 million baby boomers who voraciously acquired supersized houses in the ’90s through the mid-’00s are aging out. As boomers become empty nesters and look to retire on ever-shrinking 401(k)s, many are attempting to sell their McMansions and downsize to smaller, more affordable living spaces. Add to that all of the foreclosed McMansions already on the market, and we’re left with a glut of houses that are expensive to heat and cool and often require at least half-hour commutes. Many McMansion owners bought high (home prices peaked mid-2006) and would have no option but to sell low, since home prices have since plummeted in record numbers. According to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index, in October 2008, home prices were down 18 percent from just a year earlier, the sharpest decline in the data’s two-decade history; they’d fallen a whopping 23.4 percent since the mid-2006 peak. Some McMansion hubs, including Phoenix, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, all faced 30 percent or more declines in value, making all homes—but especially supersized ones—a burden to unload. Even without a degree in economics, it’s clear to me that high supply and low demand aren’t a winning category for housing.

In addition, the houses (often built with less durable materials and less sturdy construction) are at least a decade old and in need of maintenance. As a 2008 article by Christopher B. Leinberger, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, notes, “High-end McMansions are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wall-board are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after ten years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up.”

Home, sweet home!

Part of the reason the future looks so bleak for McMansions has to do with the regulations surrounding them. Subdividing the giant houses into living spaces for more than one family, a sensible option, is forbidden by many local jurisdictions, who keep laws on the book that don’t allow nonrelated people to share a house. The rules are often a misguided attempt to clamp down on immigrants and the less affluent—a way to limit a high-end neighborhood to just those who can afford it.

Without anyone to move into these vacant McMansions, I wouldn’t be the first to imagine the country’s suburbs as tomorrow’s version of Western ghost towns, tumbleweeds blowing by ornate French doors. Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, predicts that by 2025, about 40 percent, of about 22 million, of today’s large-lot houses will be surplus. Leinberger even predicts that “Many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.”

 

It isn’t a stretch to say that McMansions are bad for the environment, bad for aesthetics, and bad financial investments. And Americans wouldn’t have indulged in them so heavily if they weren’t able to get their hands on mortgages (and get in over their heads) thanks to subprime lenders. But none of that answers the most important question: why did we want McMansions so badly in the first place?

Robert Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell University, doesn’t buy the notion that a big house is just a way to announce your status from the (turreted) rooftops.

“I think most people don’t experience what they’re doing as ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’” he said. “The people in the middle are not looking at the wealthy and saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to have that’ they don’t think in those terms. They just see mansions and think, That’s fun, maybe someday my kids will have a place like that. But it’s not like they’re angry or envious or trying to emulate the wealthy.”

Then how did so many of us end up clamoring for McMansions?

“It’s just one step at a time,” Frank explains. “You’re more affected by your context. Instead of asking ourselves, ‘What are the richest people doing?’ it’s really more like, ‘What do people like me do around here?’ It’s been a race to keep up that has been very, very difficult for families in the middle because if you don’t participate in that, if you don’t match the spending on housing of other people at your income level, the rub is that your kids are going to go to below-average schools.

“The modern family in the middle faces the choice between saving enough for retirement and sending their kids to unsafe schools with low test scores or taking all their money out of savings and scraping together a down payment on a house in a better school district. They have chosen option two,” he said.

It is, in its way, an encouraging notion. It isn’t sheer greed or conspicuous consumption motivating the supersizing. Instead, it’s a way to access the real American dream for your kids, to give them a better education, the chance at a better life than the generation before them. Frank’s theory also helps account for why so many middle-class Americans were willing to mortgage it all—literally—to get their families into larger homes (this wasn’t as prevalent in the past, he explains, because it wasn’t possible; you had to put down 25 to 30 percent on a house, whereas the ’00s introduced no-money-down homes).

Kathy’s decision to move into a McMansion neighborhood makes infinitely more sense through this lens and goes a long way toward explaining her decision. She’s not trying to show off, or rub her wealth in the face of others. On the contrary: she’s got a new baby now, and she’s already thinking about the best public kindergarten. Whether her move, echoed by millions of other families, remains the norm for upwardly mobile families depends heavily on the shape of the economy and, moreover, our willingness to reverse a course that has already caused untold damage to our environment, economy, finances, and neighborhoods.

 

What will the future hold for the American dream house? After we recover from our record foreclosures, will we rebuild more sensibly, or start supersizing again? John Stilgoe of Harvard thinks that, for all our best green intentions, big cars and big houses aren’t going anywhere.

“My students are stymied nowadays. They believe in sustainability and talk about being green,” he says. “They’d be embarrassed to drive an SUV like many of their parents do; instead, they want a Prius. But in terms of housing, they—especially the women—don’t want to have smaller closets, or fewer clothes to put in them. My students” (ostensibly some of the brightest young minds in the country) “are dulled by the collision of the way of thinking we had through 2007 and the situation we actually face today.”

LIVING LARGE Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Z. Wexler