Big houses are all the rage

Space, amenities vital

Published: Sunday, July 31 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Susan and Victor LoForte, with daughter Juline, tour a 6,200-square-foot model home in a Draper subdivision.

Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

The yellow brick house where Carol Grass and her nine siblings grew up in the 1950s was, by today's standards, short on amenities: there was no exercise room, no home office and no home theater, no family room or walk-in closets or vaulted ceilings. All 12 family members shared one small bathroom, which did not have a jetted tub and separate walk-in shower. The whole east bench house, including the basement, was about 1,600 square feet.

Eventually a family room and an extra bedroom were added on, and the house passed into other hands several times. Most recently a family with four children moved out, explaining that the house wasn't big enough for their needs.

Mirroring a trend nationwide that has continued for the past five decades, Utahns continually want more and more elbow room, and more and more rooms per elbow. It's a trend that has fueled Salt Lake City's "monster homes" controversy in recent months, as existing homes are torn down or remodeled to create houses sometimes three or four times bigger than the Tudors and bungalows next door.

In subdivisions from West Valley City to Draper, the square footage of new homes has also steadily increased.

"People used to buy a home to meet shelter needs," says Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders. "Now they're buying for lifestyle, also."

By lifestyle, Ahluwalia means pantries big enough for those supersize packages of paper towels from Costco, "theater rooms" big enough for overstuffed sofas and big- screen TVs, garages that can accommodate three cars and some jet skis.

Pump up the volume

The average size of new houses in the United States has increased 138 percent since 1950, from 983 square feet to 2,330 square feet, according to statistics compiled by the National Association of Home Builders. Even since 1970, the average size of new houses has increased more than 50 percent.

These days, more than a third of new houses built in the United States are 2,400 square feet or bigger; in 1950 fewer than 1 percent were. Ditto for the percent of houses with four bedrooms. The percent with at least 2 1/2 baths has increased even more, from 1 percent to 56 percent. And the numbers don't tell you anything about the size of those bathrooms.

In the Salt Lake metropolitan area, according to U.S. Census Bureau's American Housing Survey, the median square footage of new single-family detached homes (including mobile homes) increased 37 percent between 1984 and 1998, the most recent year numbers were tallied. The median square footage for new houses in 1998 was 2,918 — compared to 2,230 for all owner-occupied units, old and new. The median square footage of rental units was 1,474, underscoring the division between haves and have-nots.

And it's not just square footage, but volume too — a dimension not measured on census statistics — that's increasing in new homes. The new average ceiling height, Ahluwalia says, is 9 feet, and for upscale homes it's 10 or 11 feet. So the houses look even bigger in person than on paper. And because the ceilings are higher, the rooms have to grow in proportion to keep the room from looking like a dungeon, explains luxury home builder Derek Wright of Wright Custom Homes.

"I started in business almost 30 years ago," says Debra Sjoblom, president of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. "I remember looking at homes then that are today very modest and thinking, 'Look at that fancy home.' In 25 years it's just changed dramatically."

In those days in the Salt Lake area, a 6,000-square-foot home was at the high end of large. Now that's the size of a typical new house on Draper's east bench. Luxury homes are often 8,000 to 16,000 square feet, and some have reached 25,000 to 35,000 square feet.

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