SALT LAKE CITY — If you have a house with five or more bedrooms, a three-car garage and a cathedral ceiling in the master bedroom, you might have a McMansion.
And it's not welcome in Seattle, Washington.
There, the city council recently enacted new laws that would crack down on the large and oft-derided homes that proliferated before the Great Recession.
At the same time, Seattle is allowing more people to build more spacious backyard cottages, either for rentals or for family members to use, providing more modestly priced housing for people who can't afford McMortgages.
Proponents of the new laws say the cottages can provide seniors with extra income or a way to live independently on their children's property. Backyard cottages will also allow people who can't afford to buy a home in an affluent neighborhood to enjoy the schools and other amenities of the area, supporters say.
“This is going to be an opportunity to invite so many more people into some of our most exclusive neighborhoods and make (those neighborhoods) stronger,” council member Mike O’Brien said in a report by Daniel Beekman of the Seattle Times.
In becoming more welcoming for rental units, Seattle joins other cities, such as Minneapolis and Portland, that are working to provide more affordable options in a housing market in which the large homes that baby boomers built aren't selling.
"These days, buyers of all ages eschew the large, ornate houses built (around the early 2000s) in favor of smaller, more-modern looking alternatives, and prefer walkable areas to living miles from retail," wrote Candace Taylor in The Wall Street Journal.
This leaves baby boomers who can't sell their large homes with a choice of problems: They're stuck with space they don't need in homes that could be hard to navigate as they age, or they stand to lose money if they sell.
It also leaves them with a question: Was it wrong to build all these massively large and ornate homes before the recession?
"Huge houses are immoral just like gold plated cars are immoral and massive private jets are immoral. Because you don't need them, and the money you waste on them could actually save people's lives," Nolan wrote.
Then again, many people who are lauded for their philanthropy, including Bill and Melinda Gates, live on enormous estates. No one would deride the Gates' home as a McMansion, but it contains 24 bathrooms, a trampoline room and a gym that is about the size of the new average house in America. The couple pays property tax of more than $1 million a year, according to the real estate website Curbed.com.
Regardless of where you stand on the ethics of large homes, the rise and fall of McMansions is now part of U.S. history. Here's what the decline says about Americans, and why backyard cottages are the new thing.
How houses grew
Between 1973 and 2008, the average size of new homes in the U.S. increased from 1,660 to 2,519 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Writing in The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker put it another way: When the Census Bureau started tracking new home sizes in 1973, "each newly built house had an average of 507 square feet per resident ... and nearly twice that — 971 square feet — four decades later."
McMansions, of course, are much larger. They are generally from 3,000 to 5,000 feet, and have three or more bathrooms and five or more bedrooms, according to the blog McMansionHell, which points out that a three- or four-bedroom house can nicely accommodate the average American family of 2.5 children, plus a houseguest. "This means that each of the rooms has a designated purpose/person, and enables the family to live in complete luxury and comfort, with nobody having to sleep on the couch when grandma comes over."
Oddly, American homes got bigger as the American family shrank. And although the large, luxurious home has long been seen as a symbol of success, research shows that the size of our homes does not necessarily correspond with our happiness, and that most of our family life centers around a few rooms.
As blogger Steve Adcock put it, "The majority of the space in our homes is wasted."
He cited a study by researchers at the University of California, who studied how 32 families used their homes and found that most of the traffic was in the kitchen and family rooms: to be more specific, where we prepare food and eat, and where we watch TV.
Dining rooms were hardly used at all. And only one-quarter of garages were used to store cars; the rest were repositories of stuff that didn't fit in the house.
Adcock and his wife now live full-time in a 200-square-foot Airstream travel trailer and are part of a minimalist movement populated by people who live in tiny homes and RVs, either out of financial necessity or a desire to be mobile and consume less.
Ethics of 'upzoning'
For those who find that too extreme, Seattle's new laws enable housing that might be more practical.
According to the Seattle Times, the city council voted to increase the size of cottages allowed in backyards from 800 to 1,000 square feet.
"Meanwhile, backyard cottages will be allowed on smaller lots and up to 12 unrelated people will be allowed to live on a lot with two accessory units, up from eight unrelated people," Beekman wrote.
Opponents said the changes will change the character of neighborhoods, with the prospect of developers buying homes in order to raze them and build multiple cottages to rent. But supporters said that hasn't been a problem in Portland and other cities that are relaxing zoning laws to enable the addition of small homes on existing properties.
Portland has, in effect, abolished single-family zoning altogether, according to NPR.
Legislators there recently passed a law that requires cities with more than 10,000 people to allow duplexes on lots that were previously designated only for single-family homes. "In the Portland metro area it goes a step further, requiring cities and counties to allow the building of housing such as quadplexes and 'cottage clusters' of homes around a common yard," Laurel Wamsley reported.
This follows a similar action in Minneapolis, where the city council voted in December to allow duplexes and triplexes on single-family lots, a practice that has come to be known as "upzoning."
But although upzoning is designed to solve social problems, it comes with its own ethical questions, such as whether significant changes in zoning laws are fair to homeowners who already live in a neighborhood.
And upzoning could add to the number of developers tearing down existing modest homes to make way for multiple rental units, just like teardowns enabled the construction of many McMansions two decades ago.
That's what Seattle seeks to end with its new restrictions on McMansions. The city has imposed limits on how big a new house can be, based on the size of the lot.
"For example, a new house on a 5,000-square-foot lot could have no more than 2,500 square feet of above-ground living space for a single family (not including accessory-unit space)," the Seattle Times reported.
"A new house on a 6,000-square-foot lot could have no more than 3,000 square feet of single-family space, and a house on a 7,000-square-foot lot could have no more than 3,500 square feet."
While developers may not be happy with the new rules, the residents of large homes may have a greater sense of well-being, at least for a time, according to one study. The author, Clément Bellet, a postdoctoral fellow at the European business school INSEAD, looked at homeowner satisfaction with life as it relates to the size of their homes.
As Pinsker reported, people who have spacious homes report being more satisfied than people with smaller homes, but that changes once theirs is no longer the biggest home in the neighborhood.
"The problem is that the satisfaction often doesn’t last if even bigger homes pop up nearby," Pinsker wrote.
Bellet, the author of the study, explained it this way: “If I bought a house to feel like I'm ‘the king of my neighborhood,’ but a new king arises, it makes me feel very bad about my house."
Some people believe millennials are the reason McMansions are losing status; younger buyers want different things in a house than their parents did, and many are saddled with student loan debt.82 comments on this story
"They'll buy a smaller house with fancier amenities, close to town, rather than chase square footage," Jason Dorsey, president and researcher at the Center for Generational Kinetics, told Christine Romero of Realtor.com.
Regardless of the cause, it's evident that what Americans value most in a house is changing.
"Fifty-plus years ago, a one-bathroom house or a bedroom that slept multiple siblings might have felt cramped — but it also probably felt normal," Pinsker wrote. "Today, many Americans can afford more space, and they’ve bought it. They just don’t appear to be any happier with it than with what they had before."