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Housing: Why the American Dream Looks So Different Today

by Chris Poindexter

The Census Bureau collects a wealth of data about Americans, besides just trying to count us. They also collect facts about how we live, including the structures we live in.

These extensive data sets, available online, give us a glimpse into the changing nature of housing — and the American Dream of owning a home. The picture the data paints is of a housing market still trying to shake off the effects of massive overbuilding in the years prior to 2006. The numbers also show that the homes being built today look different than they did just a few years ago, and are being built from a wider variety of materials.

While housing industry cheerleaders like the National Association of Realtors want to paint a happy face on the housing recovery, the data show the number of new single family building permits barely clawing their way back from pitch black.


Looking at the historical trend and considering the new, tighter lending standards, it’s reasonable to question whether the housing market will ever get back to the go-go days of the early 2000s, even if we collectively thought that was a good idea.

Houses also look different and are built differently. Anyone who grew up in a house with a real basement might be surprised to learn those are a vanishing component of home construction. Homes with full or partial basements now account for a lower percentage of homes than in the 70s; slabs and footers have taken over most new construction.

But basement space didn’t simply disappear, it just moved upstairs. Homes are bigger now, with the median square footage increasing by nearly 1,000 square feet since 1973. This is likely a hangover from the McMansion era of the early 2000s, when 4,000 and 5,000 square foot homes were all the rage. I started wondering if the McMansion trend had jumped the shark after showing a 5,700 square foot home that included a movie theater and private chapel. It’s an interesting contrast with the other end of the housing spectrum, attracting people to houses that are just over 220 square feet.

Construction has also started favoring two-storey homes, which started edging out single storey homes in the early 1990s. Split levels, which reached their peak of popularity in the late 1970s, have all but disappeared from the market. Bigger and taller houses mean more bedrooms and more bathrooms.

Depending somewhat on the location, modern homes are still more likely to be heated by a warm air furnace; but heat pumps are now accounting for a larger percentage of home heating. It’s also hard to find a home built without central air conditioning, compared to 1973 when just 51% of homes had air conditioning.

Since homes are bigger, it appears more emphasis is being placed on spending time indoors, as the number of homes with outdoor features like patios and decks has dropped dramatically. More likely builders are trying to hold down costs, and are leaving it up to the homeowners to decide what type of outdoor features best suit their lifestyle.

The census data constitute a treasure trove for anyone interested in the changing nature of housing and the real estate market. The picture they paint is that the American dream still includes owning a home, but the tapestry of that dream is getting frayed around edges, as more people consider alternate housing strategies. Those building new homes today are making different selections in terms of size, vertical dimensions, and building materials. If there’s one thing that stands out in the data, it’s the certainty that it’s no longer your dad’s housing market out there.

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