August 19, 2010

The McMansion Is Dead

The McMansion is dead.

It doesn’t mean very much if I say that, but this is a CNBC writer saying it: “Death of the ‘McMansion’: Era of Huge Homes Is Over.” CNBC was right at the heart of the culture of financial excess that gave rise to so many oversized, poorly designed, often poorly constructed houses all over the United States and elsewhere, so when they say that trend is over, it means something.

In barely three years, home buyers’ preference for ideal home size has fallen from a median over 3,000 square feet to perhaps 2,500 square feet. Instead of angling for the biggest house they can get, the latest trend is buyers looking for houses that are environmentally friendly or energy-efficient.

This is also a sign that the age of stuff is winding down. It is too much to ask a family of four to legitimately fill up a 4,000 square foot house. If the closets are filled, it’s with clothes that their owners no longer wear. Maybe a use can be assigned to each of the rooms, but the list would inevitably include a few rooms that no one ever looks at.

For years, people looked for a house big enough to hold all their stuff, including a lot of stuff that really didn’t matter. But now people are realizing that more space is not the ultimate solution to stuff. Having stuff you never use weakens your focus and sense of purpose in life even if you have a place to put everything. After you narrow down your possessions to things that possibly matter in your life, a McMansion can look rather empty. Go farther (assuming you can find the time) and you can discover the meaning of your possessions, and then you can make them fit in any available space — any house or any apartment, possibly even a car if you are moving a long distance and want to make the move as effortless as possible.

Stuff moves and changes more easily than we had come to think. People are rediscovering this, and it’s good news for people who worried they had outgrown their house, or who realize they need to move to a smaller place for financial reasons or to reduce their commuting time.

What will happen to the millions of houses that are 5,000 square feet or larger? Some experts worry that many will go vacant, creating new high-crime neighborhoods. More likely, though, these buildings will be put to use by people doing some kind of work that can make use of the space. There are stories, for example, of people farming a large suburban lot and using half of the house as a kind of barn. Where a business use is not practical, a large house can be reconfigured slightly so that some rooms don’t have to be heated or cooled, making the house practical to operate even if it is not fully occupied.

An equally interesting question is, what will happen to all the stuff? I can only hope that a lot of it can be resold or recycled. On average, less than half of the stuff that people buy and take home is actually used. Perhaps some of this stuff can be put someplace where it can belatedly be put to use.

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